Review: "A Small Handful" from a Towering Poet

A Small Handful

Conceived and directed by Jim Petosa

Presented by PTP/NYC via streaming

August 13-17, 2021

Paula Langton. Courtesy DARR Publicity
A Small Handful is the final of three online productions in what PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) is calling its Season 34 ½. This filmed piece presents a trio of poems by Anne Sexton, a pillar of 20th-century American poetry who struggled with her mental health and died by suicide in 1974. Each of the three poems is spoken and then sung, providing distinct but complementary experiences of Sexton's words. Running under half an hour, A Small Handful is free, but reservations are required and can be made at Home | PTP/NYC ( Donations in support of the company are of course welcomed.

The poems performed come from the earliest and latest of Sexton's published volumes, beginning with "Where It Was At Back Then," from the posthumous 45 Mercy Street (1976); then reaching back to "Music Swims Back to Me," from To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), her first published book of poems; and ending with "Seven Times," part of "The Death Baby" in The Death Notebooks (1974), published in the same year as Sexton died. Taken as a whole, one might, if one chooses, perceive in the juxtaposition of these poems the creation of an arc: a (doubled) speaker who talks first of a marriage in which she feels "incomplete," then of the disorientation of an institution, and finally of how "death took root."
Kaileigh Reiss. Courtesy DARR Publicity
The speaker of "Music Swims Back to Me" proposes that "music sees more" and "remembers better" than she does, and the sung versions of the poems, set to music by composer GIlda Lyons and performed unaccompanied and in the powerful operatic voice of soprano Kaileigh Reiss, add a richness and multiplicity to how we see and remember what we have just watched actor Paula Langton speak. It is interesting, for example, how Reiss's more gestural sung sections, filmed on a stage, register as more "theatrical" against Langton's direct-to-camera spoken segments. The tight, medium close-up framing of Langton harmonizes well with the confessional mode of Sexton's poems, whether in the direct address of the first section's repeated "Husband" or the more monologic narrative of "Music Swims Back to Me." It keeps the emphasis on Langton's expressive face and on Sexton's words, and Langton, like a good Shakespearean actor, freights each word of the verse with meaning.  

A Small Handful takes its title from the final line of "Seven Times," a declaration of the speaker's existential view of herself in that moment that collapses images of birth and death. The production itself might be seen as a form of new birth, giving new embodiment in a unique form to words that have transcended death.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards 


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