by Bathsheba Doran
Signature Theatre of Arlington, Virginia
April 24 – June 24, 2007
Anne Veal as Susanna Cox & Charlie Matthes as Jacob. Photo: Scott Suchman
Mortal trouble brews in Nest, a compelling new drama by Bathsheba Doran on a subject specifically commissioned by Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director of Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre. Infanticide by a young Mennonite woman who worked as an indentured servant in the home of a childless couple is based on the Pennsylvania German legend of Susanna Cox who was seduced by her neighbor, gave birth to a child who she killed in a state of confusion and fear, and sentenced to the gallows upon which she cried wrenchingly for God’s mercy. As the legend goes, after she was hanged, the town’s doctor tried to bring her back to life unsuccessfully. Schaeffer who grew up in Berks County, PA, became familiar with the story of Susanna Cox through the annual reenactment of Cox’s trial and hanging at the Kutztown Folk Festival.
Doran’s Susanna is dumb (as in uneducated and inexperienced), but creatively fecund in body and spirit. When the play opens, Susanna (played by Anne Veal) is under her employer’s kitchen table masturbating. Later with Master Jacob’s (Charlie Mattes) confession that he too as a child committed what he calls “the solitary act,” Susanna admits she has an “ache” and sometimes she masturbates three times a day. She also tells him that when she rubs herself, her body turns to water. Mixed up with her sexual activities are her fantasies about the Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone (Richard Pelzman) who has been popularized in a book that Jacob’s wife Elizabeth (Vanessa Lock) is currently reading. Director Joe Calarco has chosen well in selecting Anne Veal, a junior at American University, to play Susanna. Veal, who is much taller than Mattes and Lock, diminishes Susanna with her slumped body posture. In making her professional debut, Veal provides a convincing performance that combines subservience, naivety, unexpected assertiveness, and unbridled sexuality.
What gives Doran’s rendering of the Cox story heft are the politics of education and the ongoing conversation around the power of the pen. Jacob and Elizabeth are educated. He is a writer. Susanna does not know how to read and has never been offered any schooling.
Jacob is an unsuccessful political pamphleteer who cannot get a job in Thomas Jefferson’s administration. Jacob is thinking of asking for a job from Meriwether Lewis, who was commissioned by Jefferson to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase to determine if there was a straight through waterway to the Pacific Ocean. However Jacob’s emotional state of despair and loneliness pours into his letter to Lewis that he leaves carelessly out in the open and which Elizabeth sees and then over which confronts him.
Of the two, Elizabeth is the one with resources: she holds the purse strings through an inheritance from her father which includes the house they live in, she attends church and regularly talk to her pastor (Stephen Patrick Martin), and she belongs to a women’s reading group whose activities fill up her days. In fact she is more politically connected than her husband and comes home one day to ask her husband and servant what they would think about housing a runaway slave. From this conversation, Jacob suggests to his wife that they perform a radical experiment by teaching Susanna how to read, get her better clothes, and that Elizabeth should take Susanna to her ladies of the reading circle.
Inter-cut with scenes of Susanna and her employers is the story of Mr. Drumble (James Slaughter), a publisher and University lecturer, and his protégé Joe (Michael Grew). Drumble has published the United States Constitution as well as The Adventures of Daniel Boone, a book Drumble says he commissioned. However, what Drumble wants is to discover and publish the first great American poet. James Slaughter as Drumble makes the call for poets clear in a university lecture that involves smooth contact with the Signature Theatre audience. From this lecture, Joe steps forward with his poems on birds. Eventually Joe becomes the poet (hired by Drumble) who writes the ballad of Susanna, something that both frustrates and pleases him since he would rather write sonnets over a ballad.
One suspects that playwright Doran has written her own situation of being commissioned by Eric Schaeffer to write the story of Susanna Cox into the characters of Drumble and Joe. When James Slaughter as Drumble breaches the fourth wall and connects with live audience, he subterraneously becomes Schaeffer winking at Doran.
Doran has also made Susanna seem, despite her status as an indentured servant, contemporary. When Jacob tells Susanna that Elizabeth can’t have a child, Susanna says, “Maybe you can’t have a baby, ever think of that?” Then she says as she touches him that she feels him prodding at her and that they have time for contact before Elizabeth comes back. Because she has a daydream of following the stream outside the house until she finds either the ocean or Kentucky, Susanna hardly seems like a subservient female living in 1808. Although her dream seems to mimic Jacob’s hope to work with the great explorer Meriwether Lewis, the image of water (always a feminine symbol) has been claimed solidly by Susanna when she states that masturbating turns her body to water. The sensation of water is her escape and it is by the stream under moonlight where she kills the child that Jacob planted in her.
Although director Joe Calarco uses minimal props (one table and a couple of chairs), Doran furnishes the work with enough connected poetic imagery that the playing field is a rich brocade.
Karren L. Alenier