Photo by Johanna Austin,
June 4–23, 2024

Time Out of Mind: The Welkin and Hilma

June 24, 2024

By Sara Holdren

From 'The Welkin,' at the Atlantic.

From The Welkin, at the Atlantic. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

I’ve been waiting for quite a while for Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin to make its westward pass over the Atlantic. Like Halley’s Comet—which the play’s characters are restlessly anticipating in rural England in 1759, and which lagged its namesake’s predictions by more than a year because of the pull of Jupiter and Saturn—The Welkin’s stateside premiere was delayed by a capricious universe. It opened in London in January 2020, just before the end of the world as we knew it, and perhaps there was something eerily fitting in the timing. Kirkwood’s play is concerned with the minuscule scale of our knowledge in the face of the greater cosmos, of our small, fragile planet, and our vastly smaller and more fragile bodies. It’s also suffused with the sense that time’s arrow flies not straight but in a spiral; that past, present, and future coexist and can interpenetrate, like liquids of different densities sitting atop one another in a glass. “Round and round and round we go like that fucking comet,” says Kirkwood’s protagonist, the midwife Elizabeth Luke, and the question hovers: How do we free ourselves? How do we bequeath something different from what we’ve been given?

The Welkin sets itself up, not unwittingly, for a lot of comparisons with Twelve Angry Men, though Sarah Polley’s 2022 film Women Talking provides a more apt contemporary parallel. After a pair of establishing scenes, the play is a one-room drama of deliberation: In mid-18th-century Suffolk, a young woman named Sally Poppy (a fierce and feral Haley Wong) has been sentenced to hang for the grisly murder of a child, and a “jury of matrons” has been convened to rule on whether or not Sally is, as she claims, pregnant. If they decide that she is, her life will be spared and she’ll be transported; if not, she’ll get the rope. (With an acerbity reminiscent of Arthur Miller, Kirkwood shows us ourselves in our history — Sally’s life only matters if there’s a baby inside her.) The formal risks of such a courtroom set-up are talkiness and stuffiness, the old “all head, no heart or legs” complaint that Americans especially like to throw at British plays of ideas. But Kirkwood and director Sarah Benson leave no room for such a specious critique. The Welkin is all muscle — taut and intense and, in Benson’s fascinatingly un-English production, energized not only by its moral indignation but by its sense of humor, and by the specific humanity of each of its large cast of characters.

At the head of this company is Sandra Oh’s Elizabeth Luke, a piece of casting that immediately signals the playful nuance in Benson’s inclinations. Elizabeth is undeniably the show’s backbone — the one who delivers impassioned speeches and whose personal fortitude and public role as a healer earn her a complicated mix of respect, dependence, and resentment from her fellow townswomen. It would be easy to cast an actor with a more straightforward steeliness in the part, but Oh brings a different, more tender and less doggedly self-certain type of strength. Part of what’s made her so watchable on screen in shows like The Chair and Killing Eve is the way she combines immense tenacity with bursts of haplessness and sweetness. She’s got incredible nerve, but she can also access an almost clownlike frazzled vulnerability. Just watch Eve stab Villanelle and completely freak herself out.

Oh’s Elizabeth—Lizzy, everyone calls her—ultimately provides The Welkin with a softer, warmer center than the text might seem to dictate, which in itself feels like a political gesture. There’s an inherent feminism to diffusing conventional protagonistic power throughout an ensemble, and Oh’s charisma doesn’t outshine her fellow performers but instead highlights them — from Dale Soules’s wonderful elder matriarch, Sarah Smith (“I have had 21 children and three husbands, all very satisfactory”) to Nadine Malouf’s spiky, supercilious Emma Jenkins; from Ann Harada’s totally endearing, hot-flash-suffering Judith Brewer to Simone Recasner’s fluttering and flushing, heavily pregnant and husband-obsessed Peg Carter. Hannah Cabell is mesmerizing—and eventually flat-out frightening—as Sarah Hollis, a haunted woman who hasn’t spoken for twenty years, and the natural-born scene-stealer Susannah Perkins (of whose fan club I am applying for presidency) is absurdly funny as Mary Middleton, an oddball young mother given to totally shame-free, highly detailed descriptions of her bodily processes. “Last year I bled every day from Christmas till Shrove Tuesday,” she reports at one point, adding, “Amos would not be a proper husband to me at all during that time.” When one of the older matrons, the prim Charlotte Cary (Mary McCann) comments that Mary is “lucky to have a husband who gives such regard to cleanliness,” Perkins kills with the blithe reply, “Well he were happy to put it in a part of me I think considerably less clean, but if you say so.”

The Welkin introduces us to its twelve-woman jury through a beautifully choreographed swearing-in sequence. As the actors sweep, knead, polish, and churn, each character emerges from this soundscape of domestic labor to introduce herself before proceeding to her civic duty. Both Kirkwood and the performers expertly evoke full human beings through minimal, carefully chosen detail (Emily Cass McDonnell’s sad-eyed Helen Ludlow tells us she enjoys “the pursuits of rug-work and macramé and [has] miscarried twelve times in eight years”); and, as a complete picture, the scene becomes a microcosm for the play’s politics. Lizzy never lets us forget that she and her fellow matrons have all “had our housework interrupted” in order to come sit locked in a cold courthouse until they’ve reached a verdict. Kirkwood elucidates the ways in which historically masculine spheres of activity—justice, science—have been elevated in significance over the constant, unseen and uncelebrated labor of women. “I do think it very queer that we know more about the movement of a comet that is thousands of miles away than the workings of a woman’s body,” ponders Ann Lavender (Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, serious and watchful). And, as tensions amidst the women rise to boiling, Lizzy pleads with them not to reproduce the blind presumption of the men whose work they’ve now added to their own: Sally, she insists “has been sentenced by men pretending to be certain of things of which they are entirely ignorant, and now we sit here imitating them, trying to make an ungovernable thing governable.” Later on, she’s blunter still: “I did not come here in love. I come here in rage, being as I knew this building could not be decent to her. It was not built for her. It was not built for none of us.”

If you hear sickening echoes in Lizzy’s words, you’re not alone. I thought—among so many things—of Zhina Amini, of the toppling of Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, and of Heidi Schreck’s retelling of the awful facts of Castle Rock v. Gonzalez in What the Constitution Means to Me. Part of the richness of The Welkin is that there are moments in which its characters seem to hear these echoes, too. Time is not solid but full of cracks, through which bits of the future slip into the past and vice versa. “Think,” Lizzy urges her companions, “of the women who will be in this room when that comet comes round again, and how brittle they will think our spirits, how ashamed they will be …” Or, in a wonderfully uncanny moment: “We played aeroplanes,” says Sally, recalling the day of the murder, when she lay in the grass with the little victim, Alice Wax (Mackenzie Mercer), and flew the child above her in the air. “What is aeroplanes?” asks Lizzy. “I don’t know,” Sally replies, her voice heavy with weird prophecy. “I think maybe I dreamed it.”

Benson conjures this destabilizing temporal miscibility both in the performances of her ensemble and in her production’s design. There’s no BBC-esque adoption of some supposedly accurate 1750s Suffolk accent. Instead, every actor speaks assertively with their own natural inflections unless the script otherwise demands it. Tilly Botsford’s mischievous Kitty Givens is, for instance, written as Scottish, but she exists in strange harmony with Malouf’s soft-edged Australian vernacular, and with this production’s Sally, whom Wong plays in the lowest, harshest register of her voice — a thudding, throaty howl, riveting in its frequent ugliness, that exposes the character for the hunted animal and the stunted child she is. At the same time, Kaye Voyce’s costumes are a curious collage of mostly modern garments, disguised and reshaped into period-approximate forms. Oh wears a red scrunchie in her hair and a shabby wool sweater as a shawl; Soules sports a mullet and a chunky tool belt; Recasner is frilly in Free People; and the pregnancy of Perkins’s Mary pokes out from beneath a sloppy hoodie. What’s especially intriguing here is that Voyce and Benson are playing not only with time but with gender. Who, they ask us subtly, might these human beings have been—and what might they have been able to discover and express about their own bodies, desires, and identities—in a world that doesn’t demand that they all be women, that they all bear children? Who might Sally have been in a world that didn’t throw her on the scrap heap at birth?

“She must look to the Welkin,” sniffs the unsympathetic Charlotte at Sally’s impending fate. “There is no earthly help for her now.” But Lizzy sees it another way: “It is a poor apparatus for justice. But it is what we have. This room. The sky outside that window and our own dignity beneath it.” Kirkwood’s play has no comfort to give, but it has the toughest kind of hope. Like Lizzy, it comes full of rage—a bone-deep consciousness of the world’s brutal helix of wrongs—and it demands, despite everything: “But shall we not try?”

A short trip down the Northeast Corridor, the cosmos is speaking to a different set of women, and the spiraling nature of time and consciousness is showing another face — this one more ecstatic, its gaze fixed not on our repeated injustices but on our shared mysteries. It’s always a good thing to be reminded that, in theater and art as in all things, there is a world beyond New York. In Philadelphia, the Wilma Theater is doing exciting things in terms of infrastructure (like Soho Rep, they’ve instituted a collaborative three-person leadership model); programming (recent shows have included Dmitry Krymov’s The Cherry Orchard and the premiere of the Pulitzer-winning Fat Ham by James Ijames, formerly one of their co-artistic directors); and even public space: During the day, their lobby is a laptop-friendly coffee shop called Good Karma. In the evening, it turns into a pre-show bar. Theaters, take note: This is what the people want.

And right now, under the sensitive direction of co-artistic leader Morgan Green, the Wilma’s got Hilma. While that second part sounds Dr. Seussian, the show—described as a contemporary opera, with libretto by Kate Scelsa and music by Robert M. Johanson—is both searchingly earnest and, in moments, trippier than even Theodor Geisel could have imagined. Its ambitious project still feels bumpy, with some transmission slips and delayed acceleration as Hilma searches for its top gear, but there’s also a formal riskiness to the show, along with a sincere and infectious sense of wonder.

Awe is, after all, the heart of the matter. Hilma reintroduces us to Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist and mystic who, in the early years of the 20th century, was creating rapturous abstract paintings by the hundreds before abstraction was even a thing. For still extant reasons of sexism, along with her own disinclination to show her work in public, art-history classes have tended to pass her by, but Hilma’s incredible canvases—blocks of rose pink and sunset orange, glowing with yellow mandalas, gilded pyramids, and ascendant spirals—preceded those of Kandinsky and Mondrian by years. They went largely unseen, by her own demand, until 20 years after her death in 1944 and finally got a big Guggenheim Museum show in 2018. “Hilma,” writes Green in her director’s note, “was not interested in authorship.” As a member of a spiritual society of women called Da Fem (“The Five,” in Swedish), she was a committed follower of the Theosophy-inspired mysticism that permeated fin de siècle artistic and intellectual circles. She was academy-trained, with a day job painting portraits and landscapes, but her astonishing output of abstract paintings was, for her, the private fulfillment of a “commission” from the “High Masters” — spiritual guides that she knew by name, from whom she received messages beyond daily consciousness, and in whose honor she worked.

From 'Hilma,' at the Wilma in Philadelphia.

From Hilma, at the Wilma in Philadelphia. Photo: Johanna Austin

It’s a lot! And it puts Scelsa and Johanson in the simultaneously exhilarating and precarious position of trying to figure out not only how to avoid the pitfalls of the artist bio-play but also how to give dramatic shape to the story of a woman who lived a hermetic existence, who strove for the diffusion of her identity into a greater spiritual project. (Hilma makes for a fascinating study in contrast with Lempicka, recently closed on Broadway: The latter showed us artist as ego and socialite, as sensual, ambitious creature of the world, whereas the former shows us artist as egoless conduit, as priestess.) The tack Hilma’s writers take is gutsy if lopsided: Their opera unfolds in three acts, each one entirely different in aesthetic and form, and while the hard shifts are compelling, the strongest stuff in the show doesn’t emerge until too late. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that the final act is a wonderful surprise — a meta-meditation that breaks the theatrical container so convincingly that, when I was there, multiple audience members rose to leave, not realizing what was up. It’s also taken too long to get there, and along the way we’ve lost steam.

Act One of Hilma most closely resembles a conventional bio-musical, and because the trajectory from familiar to strange to busted-wide-open is intentional, Johanson’s music is at its most generic in the play’s opening third, which does the show no favors. Krit Robinson has designed an ingenious, visually sumptuous and architecturally malleable set—the beautiful initial stage picture reads as a kind of shadowy Last Supper hosted by Madame Blavatsky—but the score doesn’t give us a similar sense of the depth and weirdness of Hilma’s endeavors. When the play does shift away from the real and into the mystical realm (Act Two sees Kristen Sieh and J Molière, who play Hilma and her companion Anna, melting into an ensemble of anonymous spiritual beings, all singing euphorically of and on a higher plane), the aural and visual reference points feel less radical than retro. Maiko Matsushima’s costumes have more than a whiff of 1980s sci-fi about them, and the psychdelic loops of Johanson’s music, along with the robots-on-acid elements of Lisa Fagan’s choreography, all call to mind a catalogue of overfamiliar references. Hilma, we are told, was painting for a world that didn’t yet exist: She meant for her creations to hang in a great temple to the High Masters, “built in a spiral” — and in a wild cosmic twist, she was essentially describing the Guggenheim, whose exhibition brought more visitors to the museum than ever before, blowing thousands of minds, including Scelsa’s and Johanson’s. Her work had no antecedent, yet aspects of Hilma’s musical and visual vocabulary have too many.

Of course, attempting to match Hilma af Klint’s vision stroke for stroke is a mammoth task — to use Elizabeth Luke’s words, “almost impossible.” But do they not try? The imperfections of Hilma don’t diminish its aspirations or its strange beauties. It is, and with hope it will remain, no matter what permutations may be to come, a show in search of the infinite.

The Welkin is at the Atlantic Theater through June 30.
Hilma is at the Wilma Theater through June 23, with a digital presentation streaming from June 24 through July 21.