CONSTANCE, KENTUCKY, Canal Cafe Theatre - Review

Remember the wisdom of Solomon in the book of Proverbs: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind."
Matthew Harrison Brady: Inherit The Wind (1960)

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Set in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Made Up Theatre's latest production is anything but an antiquated play with nothing to say. Written by Anthony Cozens and directed by Anna Keeling, Constance, Kentucky begins with the arrival of Halley's Comet in 1910, a heavenly body that traditionally heralds a time of calamity or of great, historic changes.

While the townsfolk of Constance, Kentucky are riled up about the stormy, unseasonal weather that they're experiencing, like the biblical Magi they have two visitors who have been tracking the path of the 'star' from afar – Constance (Jacquie Crago) who coincidentally has the same name as the town, a purveyor of 'anti-comet' products – and her son Jacob (Joe Johnsey) who recces the town ahead of their 'arrival'. Jacob makes friends with Ruby Ruth (Katherine Rodden) the daughter of Porter Jones (Kieron Jecchnis) the local pastor. This however does not go unnoticed and as their lives become inextricably linked, what they all hold as important and the truth is tested and found wanting – their own personal end of days...

With its focus on the relationships between mothers and sons and fathers and daughters, Constance, Kentucky looks at, among other things, how gender affects parenthood and how only having a parent of the opposite sex plays its part in our development.

Rodden's Ruby still loves her father, but it is the void left by her absent mother that defines her and has prompted impulsive behaviour in the past. Conversely, having never had a father figure in his life (physical or 'spiritual') Jacob has no yearnings for what he's missed out of. However, like Kipling's Mowgli, Jacob is tempted from his life of freedom on the road to settle in 'civilisation' with a young woman who possesses all the qualities and experiences he doesn't have and vice versa.

The real grist of the play, however, is the 'relationship' between Constance and Porter. On the surface, their uneasy relationship mirrors the friction between the ecclesiastical classes of old and the bohemian women who consciously chose to live outside established communities to retain their freedom they wouldn't have had otherwise. However, the play is much more deeper than that. Constance's spartan lifestyle which she had no choice in – for better or for worse – has shaped her through and through. She can't do away with her feelings and opinions any more than she can jettison her past. Porter, however, does have a past (of a different sort) and at the risk of undermining his own 'authority' as a 'man of the cloth', confesses to Constance of the actions in the past that have set him on the road of penance. But rather than see this as a reconciliatory gesture, Constance recoils at this revelation.

Their lengthy conversation about their respective 'showmanship' and offering (false) hope is the heart of the play and the crux of the tensions, evoking the high stakes of the Drummond/Brady debates in Inherit The Wind. Porter recognises they're two sides of the same coin, tapping into the fears of others yet also providing comfort. Yet who has the 'purest' motives and offers the most palpable help when needed?

The thing about a comet is up close, it isn't a fiery ball of gas as was once thought, but a ball of rock, ice and gases – a lonely, misconstrued visitor from the farthest reaches of the solar system that flares up when in close proximity to the sun and inner planets. Near the end of its life cycle, it breaks up, some fragments returning as meteors – the earthbound 'shooting stars'. Constance's 'orbit' around rural America also reaches an end as Jacob looks to start a life independently of her in Kentucky. Without Jacob to think about and care for, will this mother find her own identity and learn to live for herself or will she lose to the will to carry on?

British productions of US-based plays can be a hit-and-miss affair with accents etc, but Keeling has done an excellent job of elicting striking performance from all the actors, and utilising the audience and the offstage natural fixtures of the Canal Cafe Theatre to denote spaces such as the town hall where the meetings take place. As for Cozens, he also happen to be a regular collaborator with the Pensive Federation and appeared in their recent excellent production of Square. From this pedigree, it doesn't surprise me one bit that his first play possesses depth and rich characters that touch upon the human condition, and the themes of Eugene O'Neill's early work.

© Michael Davis 2016

Constance, Kentucky ran at the Canal Cafe Theatre, London on 11, 12, 18, 19 and 20 August 2016

Author's review: 
5