Friday, November 30, 2007

PLAY: "Atomic Farmgirl"

Your three sisters always make you the bashful horse, or have you go as the tepee for their Indian princesses; you live on a large farm, for which you care or know little about; your town is so small that everyone shares a party line; it's the year 1966; and, oh yeah, you live about 100 miles downwind of a nuclear power plant that's gone unregulated for years. So it's no surprise that your father gets thyroid cancer -- like you and the rest of your sisters -- and then, twelve years after recovering, comes down with a brain hemorrhage from all that rerouted blood. Or that your neighbors -- crushes and all -- start dying, moving, or both. Welcome to the world of Atomic Farmgirl, a epic by C. Denby Swanson adapted from Teri Hein's identically titled memoir. (And why not? It's a catchy title.)

However, it's not the largeness of the tale -- a story that travels from a 1952 medical emergency to a 1966 less-than-idyllic childhood to a 1978 college awakening and an eventual 1991 deposition -- that makes Atomic Farmgirl worth seeing. It's not the performances either, which range from the excellent Maria McConville to the suitable Melissa Condren to the often grating Kathleen O'Grady. Rather, it's the comic little details -- like how neighbor Mona sees herself as patriotic because there's a tumor in her head the size of a baseball -- or the wry anecdotes about how a lactose intolerance saved them from death as they had to switch from the cow's unknowingly irradiated milk to bottled milk. (From a milk-bottle shaped building, no less; a fact Teri gloats about as being one of those things you can get away with in a town like hers.) Such facts make for an entertaining account, and help to ground the play even as it jumps forward and back in time.

If only Swanson had stuck with adapting the memoir. In her haste to switch narrative viewpoints in the different times -- to give us a fuller, richer picture of the times -- she creates a bunch of theatrically shallow devices. That's right: ghosts. They all serve structural purposes; these phantasms (despite their substance) don't just apparate out of the blue. But for such a weighty topic, already leaden as much with history as with the radioactive iodine-121, is it really necessary to add in two Native American ghosts, Whiet-Alks (Karen Kitz) and Chief Qualchan (Dennis Gagomiros)? The parallel between them and their farming contemporaries, Teri Hein (Condren) and Ralph Hein (Hamilton Clancy) seems unnecessary (i.e., myths have little place in the Atomic Age). It also takes away from the hallucinations of Teri's guilt-riddled daughter, Dolores (O'Grady), who gets a visitation from an old crush, Greg Hahner (Brad Coolidge). These ghosts do everything from comically crash a coffee party to travel back in time, Christmas Carol-like, and it makes the fine, natural balance of the play more than a little tipsy. It also stretches the play out (close to three hours, all told), which would be fine if all this extra pith didn't detract from the essence of the source material.

The other place Atomic Farmgirl falters is in the presentation of the family drama. This is a low-budget production, at 78th Street Lab, and it is still in development, but even so, I've seen better work from The Drilling Company before. As is, it isn't always clear who some of the double-cast actors are: David Marantz, for instance, plays two surly farmhands (Leonard Zehm and Ed Brewer), and we're often guessing which is which until the text cues us in. Furthermore, the heart of this show -- the childhood and reunion of sisters Cheryl (Jane Guyer), Marsha (Vanessa Leigh Davis), Tracy, and Kathleen -- misses more than a few beats in the acting department. It's most noticeable in the earlier years, when the sisters play at being horses: where they should be free, they are instead fettered by what seems to be embarrassment, and that takes away from the innocence that is so integral to sympathizing with this nuclear plight.

You'll note, though, that I still say Atomic Farmgirl is worth seeing. Even through production flaws, the script itself stands up very well as a representation of life not just on a farm, but in the '60s, with the shadow of a Cold War hanging frigidly in the noontime sun. The seeds of an excellent play exist in the memoir, and Ms. Swanson (along with collaborating director Brooke Brod) has harvested most of it: there's just too much chaff in the field.

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