Thornton Wilder, in his classic play Our Town, said that everyone has a need to go through the world “two by two.” Being alone in life is just not a natural state; we all need someone to share our thoughts, our pain, and our love. In Jen Silverman’s dark comedy The Moors, we meet some extreme examples of these concepts in an unusual old family manse on the rainy, windswept moors of England.
Silverman’s play takes place in the 19th Century somewhere on the land that the Brontës made famous in their novels. It’s not a reach—or a disconnected literary allusion—to bring up the Brontës: Silverman makes numerous sideways references to our knowledge of them and their works throughout the play. There is even a brother (apparently missing) named Branwell, the actual name of Emily, Charlotte and Anne’s sibling. And the whole play depends upon our understanding of the isolated, dangerous setting they kept returning to.
Nothing is quite as it appears here. Two sisters, Agatha and Huldey (played by Karen Aldridge and Christina Gorman), live in their family’s extensive old home, a somewhat odd place in which every room, no matter what its actual use might be, appears to newcomers as the same exact chamber, down to its furnishings. The sisters and their maid(s) (played by Jen Engstrom) can tell the rooms apart, but the new governess, Emilie (Audrey Billings) cannot, and is never quite certain where in the manor she is. That’s not the only odd thing Emilie finds: there is no sign of the older brother with whom she has corresponded (and emotionally connected) and who invited her here, nor is there any sign of a child, her ostensible reason for being here in the first place. And the maids? They all look exactly alike and are either pregnant, afflicted with typhous, or both. It’s a weird place.
Emilie is used to being a bright light in any home she goes to, her pink, lace-trimmed dress and ever-present guitar making her seem like a more innocent version of Maria Von Trapp from The Sound of Music. But even Emilie has trouble piercing the odd gloom of this household. Agatha is dark, officious, and a bit scary as she runs her sister’s life, and Huldey seems at times childishly gullible and at other times pretty creepy herself. And then there is the bizarrely scheming maid…or maids…or whatever. It is clear that this is a place in which happiness and honest passion have not stepped in ages, if ever, and all of its residents desperately seek some meaningful connection in their lives.
That includes the family mastiff, played by Guy Van Swearingen. This lumbering canine, mistreated badly by Agatha, is probably the darkest character here. He has long since given up any hope of finding love or solace or anything at all that would rip him out of his doldrums and contents himself to curl up in the parlor (or whatever room it happens to be at the moment) alone with his depression. Like all of the others, his world is circumscribed by his situation, status, and the (low) expectations that are put upon him. Swearingen’s dark, philosophically depressing monologues serve as the voice of the loneliness of the moors that consumes him and shapes the house’s humans…until a moor hen crashes (literally) into his life. The hen (played by Dado) is the happiest of the moor’s denizens, mostly because she has such a terrible memory that she forgets how terrified she is of taking off and landing and only remembers the joy and freedom of flying. Her whole world is centered on avoiding things that could eat her, and as long as she does she has no problems worth noting. (This is why the very large mastiff has to take it really slow as he gets to know her.)
Kirsten Fitzgerald’s deft direction, aided by Jeffrey Levin’s brilliant sound design and K. Story’s lighting, makes room for everything that Silverman’s script has to throw at us: the mystery, the horror, the philosophy, the character depth, and the humor all play beautifully. One of the best moments in the show, a one-woman tour-de-force from Gorman, combines the gothic pathos with the kind of brilliant, outrageous comedy that makes audiences want to brave the pandemic and keep attending the theatre. But Gorman is not alone: the dark, complex and intimate opposites-attract relationship developing between Agatha and Emilie gives Aldridge and Billings opportunities to play with all sorts of morphing emotions as well as their characters try to figure out how to create true connection in their empty lives. Dado, aided by Myron Elliot-Cisneros’ absolutely brilliant costume—the costuming is excellent over all—creates a memorable doofus of a character who is willing to defy what she knows about the world in order to give Swearingen’s dog the connection he so desperately needs. (The subplot and chemistry between these two is so good it could make a great play on its own.)
As to Engstrom, her line readings range from droll to menacing, and she seems to be having a great time creating these multiple look-and-sound-alike characters. Under Fitzgerald’s direction, she proves herself a master at the tiny facial expressions and movements that convey her characters’ emotions…or separate them…and when she goes for something broad and bold it somehow stuns and seems perfect at the same time.
I could go on all day here, but the fact is that you need to see this play to fully appreciate both Silverman’s work and these brilliantly intertwined performances. Fortunately, unless Covid rears its ugly multi-spiked head, you’ll have your chance: The Moors is playing at A Red Orchid Theatre until Feb. 27.