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Being from Western Massachusetts myself, I was excited to sample The Hill Town Plays, Lucy Thurber’s cycle of five dramas set amid the hamlets and college towns west of Boston and east of the Berkshires. The series, produced by the Rattlestick and running in repertory at four downtown theaters, inaugurates the Rattlestick’s new program, Theater:Village, which will feature a different cycle of linked plays every year.
Each of Thurber’s dramas—one of which, Ashville, is a world premiere—takes a snapshot of an intelligent young woman in a hard-luck home. Sometimes the plays share a protagonist—Rachel, a brilliant writer, features in Scarcity and Stay—and sometimes Thurber swaps her for a down-and-out doppelganger, like Celia, Ashville‘s angsty heroine. These girls are drowning in poverty’s tragedies: abusive alcoholic dads; powerless alcoholic moms; the struggle to get a meal or a good night’s sleep; the quest for a future elsewhere.
But economic realities don’t automatically make compelling drama, and, disappointingly, Thurber’s cycle relies heavily on cliché and self-congratulation. The three plays I saw, Stay, Scarcity, and Ashville, press their protagonists into cookie-cutter precocity, serving up pop-psychological ideas about cycles of abuse and hardship. The plots are predictable, the characters dismayingly worn-out.
In Ashville, Celia (Mia Vallet) is a struggling teen who’s too smart for her run-down hometown. Celia’s mom (Tasha Lawrence) drinks and drags home the wrong men; her boyfriend, Jake (Joe Tippett), is sweet but stifling. Only her good-time neighbor, Amanda (Aubrey Dollar), gets her. Will Jake pressure Celia to grow up too fast? Will her relationship with Amanda turn into something eye-opening but unhealthy? Yes and yes—but only in the most hackneyed ways.
Scarcity, the best play I saw, is the most conventionally realistic, unfolding in the hyperdetailed living quarters of 11-year-old Rachel (Izzy Hanson-Johnston), big brother Billy (Will Pullen), and their parents (Gordon Joseph Weiss and Didi O’Connell). Billy plots his escape to prep school, relying on the good graces of a teacher who’s a little too fond of him, while Rachel—wise and well-read beyond her years—longs for a similar way out. Unimaginative plot twists abound, but the piece benefits from O’Connell’s performance and from Thurber’s indictment of Ellen (Natalie Gold), Billy’s well-meaning but culturally tone-deaf teacher.
Stay, by contrast, was the weakest of the three. Rachel (Hani Furstenberg) and Billy (McCaleb Burnett), now adults, strive to put their childhoods behind them: She teaches creative writing to coddled college students; he’s nearly made junior partner at his law firm. But past psychological burdens trail the siblings—as does Rachel’s imaginary friend (Jenny Seastone Stern), who spouts an impish interior monologue only Rachel can hear. The siblings let their childhoods win, committing versions of self-sabotage right out of advice-column cliché. (Stay is also built on some fuzzy playwriting: Thurber’s fiercely self-protective protagonist has an inexplicable habit of leaving her front door open, allowing scantily clad undergraduates to wander in at will.)
These plays are clearly dear to Thurber’s heart, and the productions feature some excellent performers (O’Connell, Seastone Stern). But just because characters are poor, must they fulfill every stereotype about poverty? Just because they’re young, must they be precocious and sexually confused? In the end, I couldn’t help feeling that Thurber was a little like the misguided teacher in Scarcity—trying so hard to do right that everything ends up wrong.