Joseph Small has devoted a considerable portion of his (young) life and career to exploring the works of William Carlos Williams, a 20th-century poet and obstetrician who lived most of his life in Rutherford, New Jersey, but whose influence on poets as diverse as Ezra Pound and Alan Ginsburg was profound and far-reaching.
Artfully mixing Williams's poetry with the events of his life, beside the white chickens is an intelligent, moving paean to the gentle strength of an indigenous American spirit, written and performed by Small with simple, glowing honesty. An immediately engaging performer, Small had beautiful support from his director, Nicole Potter, who staged the show with an intimacy and grace that belied the underlying complexities of its ambitious, smoothly realized production. Using a combination of richly textured slides
(created by Ray Renolds), detailed but subtle lighting (Douglas Filumina), spare scenic and costume elements that set just the right tone (Marisa Timperman) and capped by a terrific sound design (uncredited) that utilized unusually appropriate Aaron Copland music and the voices of Pound, Gertrude Stein and Williams himself, Small and Potter created and sustained a warm, inviting world, in the process also providing a lovely, lyrical, and completely winning example of quietly spectacular theatre.
Conceived as a companion piece to beside the white chickens, which has a performance history dating back to 1981, The Farmers' Daughters was first performed in Paris in 1992. This current incarnation is only the second production to date, and the first double bill of both pieces.
Written and directed by Joseph Small, and based on several of Williams's short stories, The Farmers' Daughters gives voice to Williams's female patients as the stories of six women of diverse social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds are intertwined. The same gentle lyricism is still very much present in the writing, as are the acute observations of simple humanity, but the piece is not yet as sharply focused and does not sustain the engaging intimacy of the former work, despite Small's elegant, moving production and powerhouse performances from six women of mesmerizing strength and beauty.
Vicki Hirsch brought a delightfully high-handed archness to her hypochondriacal, control-freak matron, while Shawneen Rowe's snobbish neighbor was a portrait painted in an acid-based vulnerability. Judy Ramakers was a feisty, centered presence, as was Judith Jarosz as a Polish immigrant. Kathryn Strock, a living 40's pinup queen, gave a smart, enigmatic twist to her trailer-trash good-time-girl role, and Nicole Potter was stunning as a household drudge, every subtle movement speaking volumes. But since the script is not as clearly delineated as it needs to be, there is some slight confusion as to who these women are, how they relate to Williams, each other, and themselves, and why they are relating their stories.
If The Farmers' Daughters is less successful at achieving the wholeness of tone and purpose of beside the white chickens, it is only because it is still finding its voice and reason for being. With further polishing, it will no doubt grow to complement the more mature beauty of its older sibling, and the combination will be a potent, fully realized evening celebrating the simple joys of not only Dr. Williams, but intelligent and adult theatricality.
(Musical direction and arrangements by Ellen Mandel. Production
credits the same as beside the white chickens.)
Return to Volume Six, Number One Index
Return to Volume Six Index
Return to Home Page
Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita