nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
April 27, 2010
Roland Barthes once mused that the opposite of wine is milk; wine being the essence of sophistication, milk being that of innocence. Likewise, Emily DeVoti uses raw milk as a metaphor in her astute and sensitive new play Milk, drawing a red line between the farm crisis of the 1980s and the locavore movement of today. For DeVoti, however, raw milk may be pure, but it is far from chaste. The romance of pastoral life clashes with its reality in this eloquent tale of a family dairy farm facing its demise from the onslaught of big agribusiness, even as jaded city slickers yearn for a piece of rural yesteryear.
Sitting in the dark, sifting through receipts while radio pundits struggle to assess Reaganisms, Meg and Ben reluctantly begin to broach the foreclosure of the dairy farm that has been in her family for generations, when they find a letter from a would-be benefactor seeking succor from city life. Meg smells a rat, but Ben, who himself originally hails from the Bronx, feels that the cocky entrepreneur James is a godsend and a like-minded soul. Fulfilling Meg's worst fears, however, James alights from a helicopter with his teenage daughter in tow and immediately proposes adding buffalo to the herd of dairy cows—bulls no less—apparently conflating the Berkshires with the Badlands. As the tension between Meg and James flip-flops between antagonism and attraction, their relationship is mirrored by their teenage children who discover that each yearns for what the other takes for granted. Ultimately, Meg begins to question her domesticity, spurred in part by a mysterious creature lurking in the field that might be the last wild cow in existence.
Milk, naturally, figures quite prominently throughout this play. A swig of the raw stuff is James's initiation into farm life, propelling him down a road of inner discovery. Milking is later an act of a truce in a lovely scene that illustrates the seductive rhythm of rural life. Without hammering you over the head, DeVoti deftly uses raw milk and homogenized milk as provocative metaphors for wildness and domesticity, for country and city. Homogenization is characterized by Meg as "no lumps, no fat, so you can pour it into one big vat and never have to stir. So it matches everyone else's. And then we expect to have the same thing we started with, but I don't know what, less...risky?"
Ironically, homogenization is what most mars this otherwise able production. Director Jessica Bauman steers a resolute middle course, with very little in the way of contrast or risk. The cast is sensitive and skilled, but without clear delineations between country folk and city folk, the transformations of the characters were not deeply realized. Likewise, Susan Zeeman Rogers provides a handsome whitewashed split set, but it is just a bit too perfect, giving little indication of the farm's dire financial straits.
However, there is much to enjoy in this production, from a 1980s pop soundtrack that includes Blondie and A-ha to the wonders of hearing Reagan say "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do." As Meg, Jordan Baker possesses a quiet clarity and affecting simplicity. Peter Bradbury has a sensitivity that makes James's inarticulate yearning quite moving. In the pivotal scene where Meg teaches James to milk, it is hard not to be enchanted as he is by the rural rhythms depicted in this thought-provoking play.