Review: Faith Clashes with Family in the Superbly Acted “To She Who Waits”

To She Who Waits

Written by Bob Clyman

Directed by Maria Aladren

Presented by The American Renaissance Theater Company at Theatre 54

244 W. 54th St., 12th floor, Manhattan, NYC

May 23-June 8, 2019

Carol Todd and Lee Eden. Photo credit: Michele Becker
Set primarily in Mccullough County, the geographical heart of Texas, 2018 Kaufman Award-winner Bob Clyman’s new play, To She Who Waits, has at its own heart a perceptively drawn and keenly affecting mother-daughter relationship. When we first meet Meg (Carol Todd), her 16 year-old daughter Hannah (Lee Eden) is angrily calling her a liar during a court-appointed visit. Meg has a limited time before the court system, along with Hannah herself, decides whether Hannah will be returned to her mother’s custody and move to Austin or will remain in the extremist Christian community called “The Realm” to which her father, Jack (Brian Homer), signed over legal guardianship of Hannah before he died. To She Who Waits uses this central conflict to explore the messy complexities of family, fulfillment, and belief with a clear-eyed acuity bolstered by assured direction and artful performances.

Much of the play weaves seamlessly forward and backward in time as, in preparation for her custody hearing, Meg discusses with her no-nonsense lawyer, Sheila (Kathleen Swan), her conversations with Hannah recorded during their courthouse visits and the family history that has brought them to this point. Meg and Jack’s marriage is born of an accidental, though not unwelcome, pregnancy. Eventually, frustrated at work and unhappy at the lack of additional children, Jack becomes vulnerable to the sense of purpose and belonging offered by their church’s new pastor, the end-times preacher Uncle, smartly never shown onstage. Jack’s dedication to Uncle and his teachings drives a wedge between him and his wife that leads to divorce, progressively deteriorating shared custody of Hannah, and a restraining order. In the course of this, Hannah ends up living exclusively with her father, and, as Meg says at one point, the one who leaves always looks like the villain. Meanwhile, Uncle has established The Realm and has been accumulating children, legally signed over from unstable situations, through “scriptural adoption.” Meg is the first to resist in court, but will the lure of french fries, internet access, and lactose intolerance pills be enough to break through to a daughter who is deeply hurt by and resentful of what she sees as her mother’s abandonment?

The play’s title—which recalls Puritan writer John Milton’s famous line, concluding a sonnet in which he worries that his blindness will preclude him from honoring God with his talent, “They also serve who only stand and wait”—might apply to any of the three women at its center: Sheila has been waiting for, as evocatively she puts it, the mother she needs (in order to challenge Uncle’s church in court); Meg has been waiting for years to reunite with Hannah; and Hannah herself has stopped waiting for her mother and now waits only for God to bring about the apocalypse. The men’s waiting is less humanly oriented, unless one counts Jack’s fitful hope that Meg will renounce her path in life and embrace Uncle’s: Uncle’s Realm is conceived as a place to await the arrival of God, and Jack speaks, not unlike Milton, of the religious importance of waiting and of the ability to, he says, hear God in the silence. If Jack, like Hannah, has stopped waiting for Meg and now waits only for God, so Hannah, like Jack, uses faith (and substitute mothers) to fulfill emotional needs and to fill in absences.

Kathleen Swan and Carol Todd. Photo credit: Michele Becker 
Hannah at some moments misremembers or misrepresents her past with her mother in what is likely actually anger at Meg for leaving father and her. At base, Hannah feels and acts much the same as many an angry teen or/and child of divorce, albeit intensified by her religious indoctrination. Homer convincingly shows not only Jack’s increasingly single-minded religiosity and corresponding will to control his family but also the sincerity of his feelings for them, even tied up as they are in his extremism. This portrayal, including its glimpses of these relationships in better times, renders it heartbreaking that this one thing is poisoning this working-class family, but that one thing is more than sufficient. Fittingly, all four actors remain on stage for almost all of the play, whether a direct part of a given scene or not, Sheila reacting to and taking notes on the proceedings and Jack a constant present-absence upstage. The characters are written and embodied such that one never loses the sense that they are real, complicated people. There is often also a sense of people caught in larger systems, making their flawed ways as best they can, such as the way in which the play critiques Uncle’s species of religion but doesn’t condemn Hannah for believing (or her mother for not). Todd gives a magnificent, lived-in performance as Meg, shot through with an often weary resolve. Eden’s Hannah strikes a layered balance of defensiveness and genuineness; and Swan lends compelling dimension both to Sheila, especially notably in a late, climactic story of a previous client, and to Mother Becca, in some ways a hesitant opposite to the brusque lawyer and whose acceptance of Uncle’s advice leads to an ironic outcome.

While Clyman’s characters would probably agree that there are some things for which one should wait, seeing this excellent, memorably acted production is not one of them.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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