by Michael Grossberg
Red Herring Productions illuminates “Knives in Hens” with stabs of poetic power, but David Harrower’s brooding romantic triangle remains a dark drama indeed.
Penny Napoli’s taut direction propels the Ohio premiere of the 1995 play, which opened Friday at the Franklinton Playhouse, as a timeless journey of enlightenment that evokes biblical fable.
The Scottish playwright may be best known for “Blackbird,” another drama of sexual awakening, deception and revenge.
Like Harrower’s superior “Blackbird,” which received an excellent central Ohio premiere in 2009 at CATCO, “Knives in Hens” offers an intense, minimalist tale contrasting darkness and light.
Three actors bring the play to disturbing life, but the emotional focus is a young woman’s passage from innocence to experience.
Jordan Davis – who memorably played Anna in Red Herring’s “Anna Weiss” - almost glows as the unnamed Young Woman who slowly awakens from passivity to curiosity and responsibility.
Her interior journey is triggered by accident, when her controlling husband, a farmer, sends the sheltered Woman on a rare errand to a neighboring grain mill in their small pre- or post-industrial community. (The primitive era is ambiguous, perhaps centuries ago or a distant future).
Yet, her progress comes at a cost as convulsive as a child’s birth.
Both men register strongly, although their stoic dialogue seems designed to let the woman shine.
As Pony William, the Woman’s husband, Sean Taylor conveys confidence mingled with an ugly sense of entitlement. Believable as a workaday plowman, William treats his wife like a possession or servant, even in bed.
As Gilbert Horn, the disliked local miller, Scott Willis grounds his nuanced performance in harsh realism. Horn’s sad acceptance of a lonely life is rooted in the limited options of a community where his occupation, albeit useful to farmers, is despised because of its apparent relative ease and leisure.
The woman initially fears him enough to imagine his cruel laughter. Yet, the miller gradually reveals a softer side to her, ultimately encouraging her, teaching her to read and inviting greater intimacy.
The actors add lilting Scottish accents to the blunt and spare dialogue, one of Harrower’s strengths.
The performances glisten under Kurt Mueller’s chiaroscuro lighting, while the unfolding relationships play out naturally on scenic designer Michael Garett Herring’s multi-leveled platforms, which define the miller and plowman’s homes.
With drab, earth-colored and layered tunics and robes, Brian A. Palmer’s effective costume design help establish the primitive, rural culture.
At Thursday’s preview, the acting, direction and design wove a compelling spell that still left some room for doubts about the primal story, its ambiguous setting and metaphoric themes.
The 85-minute one-act is suggested for mature audiences because of brief nudity and profanity, adult sexuality and (offstage) violence.