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“The Welkin” reviewed

 

It’s no fluke that Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Welkin begins in near pitch-blackness. Light from a single candle means you must squint to make out the gore-soaked goings-on. It’s an apt opening for this spiky meditation on women and motherhood as seen from every angle, including the darkest and deadliest ones.It’s 1759, and townsfolk in Suffolk, England, are all craning their necks and looking to the welkin (as in, the heavens) while awaiting Halley’s Comet. But now the focus is on Sally Poppy (Haley Wong), who’s sentenced to hang for a grisly murder.

But not so fast! She claims she’s pregnant. Local matrons – a dozen of them, in an obvious nod to the legal nailbiter Twelve Angry Men – are summoned from household chores to determine if she’s really with child or lying to escape the noose. Midwife Lizzy Luke (Sandra Oh, centuries away from Killing Eve) becomes an unofficial leader.

Thematically, it’s a fertile set-up: A woman who’s going to give life has unapologetically taken one. Her fate belongs to other women. What unfolds over 2.5 hours is a courtroom-adjacent drama and social consciousness-raiser that plays by its own rules. Why must Sally’s fate be decided immediately? She’s not showing now, but she will in time. But so it goes in this story.

After all, Kirkwood isn’t chasing a strict mid-18th century Law & Order. Talk of “aeroplanes,” inventions 150 years away, and a singalong to a 1980s pop song show that the author’s time frame is flexible. Issues women face about their gender, bodies, power, and, literally, life and death continually arise – predictably so, just like Halley’s.

Kirkwood’s script can ring with heavy-handedness, like when Lizzy moans: “Nobody blames God when there is a woman can be blamed instead.” On the plus side, sly, plot-thickening twists pop up, and director Sarah Benson’s diverse and dynamic ensemble near-uniformly delivers.