The costumes for the ambitious new play at UC Davis suggest ideas like “Puritan” and “early America.” And the story involves the consequences of adultery—bringing mental references to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to mind (both set in colonial America).
British playwright Bathsheba Doran, however, has consciously located her new play Nest after the Revolutionary War, as the new nation is “coming into its own.” The time is the early 1800s, just after President Jefferson has completed the Louisiana Purchase, as the anti-slavery movement is gaining ground up north.
What unfolds is a tapestry of overlapping stories involving characters awakening to new ideas and identities. We meet a publisher and a writer, well-dressed urbanites trying to define an “American voice” in literature. There’s a country chaplain, finding the beauty of God in rural Pennsylvania. And there are visitations from a phantasm representing frontiersman Daniel Boone, skinning a rabbit and describing Kentucky as some new Eden.
Centrally, there’s Elizabeth (well-acted by Hope Mirlis), an educated landowner. Her husband Jacob (Samuel Hardie) is an intellectual of modest accomplishment, with dormant links to historic figures like Jefferson. Jacob has lost interest in the farm (and marriage, and the church)—he longs to return to philosophy and politics.
Instead, Jacob begins an affair with their illiterate 24-year-old indentured servant, Susanna (Jessica Herman)—who has half-formed ideas about moving into a bigger world herself. This being a contemporary play, the representation of sex is frank (and not just referred to). When Susanna eventually gives birth and kills her baby in a panic, she’s sentenced to hang. The hysteria surrounding the execution of a young woman brings together the strands of the story.
Directed by Irina Brown of the United Kingdom, Nest is an interesting work-in-development that’s not entirely “done” yet. This review is based on a preview performance, where one senses there could be tweaks and changes. But the script, which works fertile ground, is headed for publication by Samuel French. This is a good opportunity to catch a groundbreaking new play that will likely go on to future productions in bigger cities.