No wings close the expanse of earth that widens the Court Theatre stage to a landscape in Caryl Churchill’s Fen, directed by Vanessa Stalling, with scenic design by Collette Pollard. The terraced land, hemmed in scalloped edges by shining metal borders, looks like the ocean, diminished and immobilized in its crash against the massive concrete edifice that looms over it. The colors are grim and muted; the pungent smell of earth—the smell of birth, the smell of death—penetrates the space.
The dust from this earth rises in plumes thick enough to sting your eyes and make you cough. Perhaps this is an inaccuracy to what by name ought to be a marshland—yet the proximity to other narratives of labor and the persistent visual of dust that just won’t settle works next to the monumental gray of the building, ugly as a factory.
The play begins with a sound, an eerie keening that combines the call of crows with voices crying, shouting, and chanting, weaving together the sound of predation, suffering, and song. The landscape below is dark; a light shines from beyond a door placed high on the facade.
Through 3/5: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; audio description and touch tour Sat 3/4 2 PM (touch tour at 12:30 PM), open captions Sun 3/5 2 PM, ASL interpretation Sun 3/5 7:30 PM; Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $40.50-$82
On “the most expensive earth in England” labor unfortunate women: Val (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), Angela (Morgan Lavenstein), Shirley (Genevieve VenJohnson), and Nell (Elizabeth Laidlaw), watched over by gangmaster Mrs. Hassett (Lizzie Bourne) and joined by the occasional man (Alex Goodrich). They work on their knees, hands searching the soil for some small potato, rain or shine. The women are “better workers than men,” says farmer Mr. Tewson (Goodrich). “I’ve seen women working in my fields with icicles on their faces. I admire that.”
The icicles are among the lesser pains in Fen, in which the organizing principle of society is exploitation—of the land that has been drained for agriculture and of the laborers who work the land, of and by the farmers who own the land, by the government that taxes the land, and by the businesses who have devised means of measuring the land in money. Beneath the systemic cycles of abuse, individuals find their own expressions of cruelty, whether it’s Angela’s casual brutality to her stepdaughter Becky (Bourne), whose hair she yanks, whose body she beats, and whose poems she derides, or the village children’s mockery of Nell, whom they have decided is a witch or a “morphrodite”—probably both.
Means of escape are few and mostly futile. The children dream of becoming nurses and hairdressers, “but I never want to leave the village,” they say—and they never will. Alice (Bourne) finds solace in Jesus, but Val would rather take Valium. Val, who is married with children, is in love with fellow laborer Frank (Goodrich), a fact that seems as incomprehensible and inane to the others as it is impossible to resolve between them—Val first decides to leave her children to live with Frank, then can’t bear to be apart from them. “One of us had better die,” she says to him one night in their off-again, on-again, torrid, tormenting, and deeply banal romance.
But even death brings no respite from the misery of the fens. “We are starving, we will stand this no longer,” shouts a ghost (Gonzalez-Cadel) to Mr. Tewson, who has carried her rage for a century and a half and still hoes the field with unabated fury in the afterlife. (Tewson: “Are you angry because I’m selling the farm?” Ghost: “What difference will it make?” Tewson: “None, none, everything will go on the same.” Ghost: “That’s why I’m angry.”)
“I have to make something happen,” says Angela to Becky, in a confession in a dream that explains the perpetuation of trauma upon trauma so logically it must be true: “I can hurt you, can’t I? You feel it, don’t you? Let me burn you. I have to hurt you worse. I think I can feel something. It’s my own pain.” “My grandmother told me her grandmother said when times were bad they’d mutilate the cattle,” adds Shirley, whose family adds another generation to endure the punishment of impoverished existence every 16 years. In this universe of privation, where birth, love, death, drugs, and Jesus can bring no redemption, why go on? Some attempt suicide. Some succeed.
And yet, despite the dust and dark, there are brief moments of connection and community. Six-year-old Shona shares jokes with her mother Val, which are more fun for her pleasure than their novelty. Angela and Becky compose a poem together—it’s a mean one, but they prove they can. Throughout the play the women sing, sometimes alone but best of all together, creating temporary harmonies, a loveliness seemingly from nothing, breathed, voiced, created, experienced, then gone, a vibration that passes through like a ghost of a hope that can’t quite exist in this universe yet somehow does.
With more than 20 characters played by six actors in succinct episodes, Fen does not yield its stories easily—you have to scrabble after them and be content to let some of the details get lost in the sameness of the landscape. This production’s intervention to make them more legible by using uppercase supertitles naming the characters feels a tad heavy-handed, particularly when the ensemble is so strong. And if they blend, that mingling of persons reflects Churchill’s research process with the Joint Stock Theatre Company of compositing voices from the Fens in eastern England.
“Fen is a play with more direct quotes of things people said to us than any other I’ve written,” wrote Churchill in her 1983 introduction. “It’s a play where I have a particularly lively sense of how much it owes to other people.” To hear their voices 40 years on is to wonder how much has changed for them—and us.