nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 28, 2007
Equal parts memory play, docudrama, and detective story, Atomic Farmgirl, C. Denby Swanson's new stage adaptation of the memoir by Teri Hein, puts a gently supernatural twist on that old chestnut, the domestic family drama. Swanson's touching play gets a beautiful production from The Drilling CompaNY: they handle this quietly sprawling three-act dramedy with care, grace, and class.
Atomic Farmgirl covers five decades at the Hein family farm in rural Washington, and the public health impact of the neighboring nuclear plant, Hanford (where the U.S. government built the atom bomb). Zigzagging back and forth in time, the story unfolds from multiple viewpoints: matriarch Dolores testifies at a lawsuit deposition in 1986; daughter Teri confides in one of her bedridden students in 1991 (she tutors adolescent chemo patients); Teri's sisters—Cheryl, Marsha, and Tracy—convene to decide the fate of the family farm. From the perspectives of these five women, Atomic Farmgirl weaves a rich tapestry of memorable characters and fateful events.
Like patriarch Ralph's 1952 thyroid cancer and 1966 brain hemorrhage (he's the strong, stoic type who survives both). Or the declaration made by Whiet-Alks, the wife of a 19th century Indian chief, that "In every story there are ghosts." Atomic Farmgirl has its share—like her and her slaughtered husband, Chief Qualchan. They each visit Ralph and Dolores periodically to cryptically touch base about the how the present and future have been influenced by the past. The spirit of a deceased neighbor, hunky farmboy Greg, drops in on Teri to help steer her towards her—and her family's—manifest destiny.
So how are a community of rural farmers, a pair of ticked-off Indian ghosts, and a government nuclear facility all connected? That's the rich surprise of Atomic Farmgirl, and it's one that Swanson reveals expertly. Suffice to say that it involves long forgotten past wrongs and heavy karmic payback.
Swanson treats the characters with a generous amount of compassion and respect. She likes and feels for them, and so do we. Atomic Farmgirl also contains a healthy share of prophetic hard-won wisdom, and an unobtrusively sharp sense of foreshadowing. When Whiet-Alks drops pearls like "Women talk because of anger, because of fury," and "What you speak you make," it's not just for the catchy platitude factor. Both statements have thematic value that manifests itself dramatically later. But, Atomic Farmgirl also has an unexpectedly prevalent funny bone. When a pair of dead neighbors congregate in Dolores's kitchen, their explanation is simple: "Your kitchen always did feel like heaven."
Director Brooke Brod mixes the multiple eras and locations seamlessly—with Rebecca Lord's magnificent multi-area set carrying much of the load—and stages the action in a similar vein, with nary a blackout in sight. Christopher Rummel's sound design is equally evocative. Gina Scherr and Lisa Renee Jordan also make effective contributions with their lighting and costume designs, respectively.
The cast, largely made up of Drilling CompaNY regulars, is in fine form. Standout performances come from Hamilton Clancy as Ralph, Melissa Condren as Teri, Brad Coolidge as Greg, and David Marantz in a trio of smaller supporting roles. These four actors exemplify the best of what this entire company has to offer: deeply felt three-dimensional performances full of nuance, subtlety, and heart-wrenching power.
According to the program notes, The Drilling CompaNY has been developing Atomic Farmgirl for almost three years, and their meticulous incubation of this project has paid off. This is a production that deserves a nice long life after its current run. Don't let that stop you from seeing it now, though. Atomic Farmgirl's heartfelt sincerity is hard to come by nowadays, but it's still something we could all use a little more of.