‘The Welkin’ Off Broadway Review: Sandra Oh Is One of 12 Angry Women

Female grievances flood the stage in Lucy Kirkwood’s wild new play

"The Welkin" Off Broadway
"The Welkin" Off Broadway

Sandra Oh makes for a very effective Henry Fonda, as he appeared in “Twelve Angry Men.” She also manages to convey Nancy Kelly at her most distraught and maternal in “The Bad Seed.” And swirling around this actor are another 15 equally gifted performers who bring to mind “The Crucible” in its most powerful moments and “Dead Ringers” at its most lurid. Lucy Kirkwood’s sometimes bewildering and always fascinating new play “The Welkin” opened Wednesday at the Atlantic Theater Company after its world premiere at London’s National Theatre in 2020.

Among the aforementioned works, “Dead Ringers” probably needs the most explanation, and it’s a good place to begin to describe Kirkwood’s wild new play. In David Cronenberg’s 1988 film, identical twin gynecologists, played by Jeremy Irons, design a number of gynecological instruments for inspecting and operating on mutant women. Sally Poppy (Haley Wong) in “The Welkin” is worse than mutant; she is a convicted murderer in a border town somewhere between Norfolk and Suffolk in England in the year 1759. A jury of men have already found her guilty, and now 12 women have been called together to decide if she is really pregnant. Or is she just trying to escape an immediate hanging?

Apparently, the English are always eager and ready for another good public execution, so the dozen women have to make their decision in a hurry. They are even deprived of water, food and heat in the winter to help speed up their verdict. Despite the best attempts of a mid-wife (Oh) to declare Sally pregnant, the women can’t agree on Sally’s condition. In the process of their deliberations, Kirkwood has her characters recite every old wives tale ever told about conception, pregnancy, giving birth, menopause, women’s intuition and the makeup of the female anatomy. Eventually, a man has to be summoned, of course, and he is the doctor (Danny Wolohan) who takes from his satchel a metal contraption that exceeds anything delivered by the imagination of Cronenberg. The grizzly props are by Noah Mease.

Especially creepy is how graciously the role of the doctor is written by Kirkwood and presented by Wolohan. He really comes off as a nice, mild-mannered guy, as do Sally’s cuckold husband (Wolohan double cast) and the bailiff (Glenn Fitzgerald) who silently watches over the female jury.

"The Welkin" Off Broadway
“The Welkin” Off Broadway

The 12 women are another matter completely. Oh essays the most difficult role. She gets stuck being the sole voice of reason, which can be a bore — and Oh is anything but. She nearly throttles the others to accept her enlightened position not only regarding Sally, but the political and social condition of women in general. Kirkwood’s other female characters boil up with scathing humor to create a panoply of female subjugation ready to vaporize the sex. It’s no wonder that an angel — or is it just a dead crow? — wreaks havoc on the jailhouse room these women have to share for a few hours. Or is it a few days? At the center of the chaos are Oh and Wong, who uses a commanding contralto voice to create an awesomely ominous disconnect from her young, lithe body.

“Welkin” is an archaic word meaning sky or the celestial abode of God, who has completely abandoned not only Polly but every other woman on His planet.  

The amazing cast also includes Tilly Botsford, Hannah Cabell, Paige Gilbert, Ann Harada, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Mary McCann, Emily Cass McDonnell, Nadine Malouf, MacKenzie Mercer, Susannah Perkins, Simone Recasner and Dale Soules. Despite the ol’ British locale, all these actors are as American as an apple pie gone rancid, and their vocal flatness showcases Kirkwood’s wicked humor to perfection. It is anachronism raised to an art form.

Sarah Benson directs and leaves not one Grand Guignol detail unexplored. Especially effective is Stacey Derosier’s lighting design, which can best be described as feral.

And what a delight it is to see a large ensemble on stage together and a theater company not afraid to give them that space to perform.

“The Welkin” is a two-act play that clocks in at a little over two and a half hours. If that sounds like a trial, it is not. I haven’t laughed this much in the theater since I last saw Cole Escola’s comedy “Oh, Mary!”

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