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A CurtainUp Review
My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer
Jordan G. Teicher
It's a story of grief and guilt and a very specific sort of spiritual desolation. As an evocation of scene and tone, Watkins' play is forcefully and brutally spot-on, and his mode of storytelling, if not for everyone, makes for a unique theater experience.
It starts with a prologue of sorts, a family story recounted by Sarah about her great-grandmother's disappearance on a wintery night. Working with little more than light and shadows against cloth, John Eckert's lighting design is indispensable here. This rapid-fire and honest scene sets the pace for the rest of the play.
Sarah and Hannah tell their tale in tandem, painting a picture of their bleak existence on the Colorado plains. Sarah is the oldest, seemingly more resigned to the banalities and disappointments of life.
With deadpan expression and a plain, colloquial delivery, Katherine Folk-Sullivan brings just the right seriousness to the part. Hannah, played with equal skill by Layla Khoshnoudi, works as a waitress in town and projects a more youthful spirit.
Both are world-weary, practical and haunted by someone or something. Though the events of the play take place in the past, and we consequently don't see most of them, their performance, under Danya Taymor's direction, gives the play an immediacy that keeps it consistently engaging.
Sarah and Hannah are both responsible for the care of their mother's sheep, Vicky, an anniversary gift from their father, who is either dead or estranged. It's a detail mentioned in passing, but it counts for a great deal in this play which, very subtly, is entirely concerned with the absence of this character. Vicky is a reminder of their father, and, as a result, she bears the brunt of their lingering feelings toward him. Like the great-grandmother in the prologue, the memory of their father is both elusive and frightening.
As their mother's 60th birthday approaches Sarah and Hannah try to make it nice for her. Meanwhile, as their narrative unfolds, Sarah and Hannah gradually build a pyre made of logs. Small details, often revealed in short confessionals given special significance by an overhead, police-interrogation style light, help construct a deeper psychological profile of the sisters. A sense of impending darkness brews.
Needless to say, things really, really don't turn out well for the sheep. For some audiences the description of what happens might be too visceral. But Watkins' violent scene is far from senseless; it is, indeed, the main event of the play and its raison d'être. Vicky's demise is grisly but necessary, and its description is a grim sort of poetry. Theater, like life, need not always be pleasant or fun. When that discomfort serves a higher narrative purpose it can be earned. In this story of loss and letting go, Watkins earns it.