Within a few minutes of the opening of “The Welkin,” one of the characters says this: Going to church is like housework, people judge you by how well you do it, it makes your back ache, and after you have done it, it needs doing all over again a week later. 

Which methinks pretty much sums up the value system of Lucy Kirkwood as well as the theme of this mysterious play.  By the by – I agree.

The first act is a little bit magic and a little bit realism.  We meet a jury of women one by one as they line up to take the oath that will make them a legal entity.  One is a visitor.  One is mute.  One is a midwife drafted for this duty.  Like the jury in “Twelve Angry Men” these women have been sequestered to determine the fate of a young person.  Sally Poppy (Haley Wong) and her husband Frederick (Danny Wolohan) are accused of killing the daughter of a wealthy local family.  It was a gruesome death, and the specifics are a little vague.  No matter.  We move on quickly.  Frederick was hanged after he placed the blame on Sally.  Sally’s punishment, however, has been stayed because she claims to be pregnant,  If she is, her punishment must be delayed.  The 12 women are charged with the task of determining her pregnancy.

The time is 1769, the place Suffolk England.  The characters, the author notes “can be of any ethnic background, indeed it is crucial the group reflects the present day population of the place the play is being performed in, not East Anglia in the 1750s.”

Check and double check.  Not only does the cast not look like East Anglians, they don’t sound like it either.  Several times the whiff of an English accent wafts through, but with the exception of Tilly Botsford who IS a Brit, the dialect is plain old stage American.  In addition, the costumes are fascinating in their lack of uniformity.  One woman wears a suit and hat that look like they came out of a Suffragist parade.  Another a wears a delicate lacy maternity gown.  Another wears work boots and what could be a leather bustier of sorts.

All in all it is a crazy looking and sounding bunch of gals locked into a dark bleak room with one high window and a cold fireplace.  This is a treat of an ensemble.  The women mill about as if they were connected by an invisible thread.  Soon the suspicions and secrets start to tumble out like cloths slipping out of a dryer door before it completes its cycle.  The first act is a solid creation.

The second act – well let’s just say that Ms. Kirkwood has never met a plot twist or add-on she didn’t like.   In Act Two she has packed so many twists into one carrying case that the second act nearly bursts from the weight.

Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

The plot twists gather momentum and leapfrog over one another, claiming space and air time, until we lose the previous facts and can only focus on the one rushing by and grabbing our hand.  And let’s not forget the pop song from the ’80’s, a 20th century cleaning woman and a processing nun.  It is enough to give a person whiplash, and all of this adds to the surreal quality of the production.

It feels like the only thing that stops more twists being added is the inevitable fate of Miss Sally Poppy. We understand the conclusion, but we are not certain how we got there.

As to why it is titled “The Welkin”?  Good luck with that.

Like I said, the ensemble work of  Tilly Botsford, Hannah Cabell, Glenn Fitzgerald, Paige Gilbert, Ann Harada, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Nadine Malouf, Mary McCann, Emily Cass McDonnell, MacKenzie Mercer, Susannah Perkins, Simone Recasner, and Dale Soules, is splendid.  They are a mighty force of magic on the stage.  While Elizabeth Luke (Sandra Oh) has hold of the rudder – and she is splendid in her persistence and laser focus on the issues she feels are important – the entire cast is almost always onstage and is alive with their lives and emotions all their own.  This is no group of shrinking violets.  These are our ancestors on whom our survival depends.  They know their responsibilities will outlive them and welcome the challenge.

On a technical note – it would have been thoughtful to have photos of the actors in the Playbill or on display.  I know that Off Broadway houses do not do have actors’ photos in their Playbills, but in this case every actor was identified only by their character’s names – and who can remember 12 names?  You CAN find them on the website…

THE WELKIN – Written by Lucy Kirkwood, Directed by Sarah Benson

Featuring Tilly Botsford, Hannah Cabell, Glenn Fitzgerald, Paige Gilbert, Ann Harada, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Nadine Malouf, Mary McCann, Emily Cass McDonnell, MacKenzie Mercer, Sandra Oh, Susannah Perkins, Simone Recasner, Dale Soules, Danny Wolohan, and Haley Wong.

The Welkin will feature sets by dots, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lights by Stacey Derosier, sound by Palmer Hefferan, special effects by Jeremy Chernick, hair & wigs by Cookie Jordan, makeup by Gabrielle Vincent, movement by David Neumann, intimacy direction by Crista Marie Jackson,

Limited Engagement through Sunday, June 30th, 2024 at Atlantic Theatre Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street