Review – ‘Heathen Valley’ at Main Stage West By Alexa Chipman
Community is faith at its strongest, and for settlers in the remote Appalachian Mountains, it is everything. When an Episcopal bishop arrives to properly civilize them, he is met with wary skepticism. Superstition, not theology, rules their tiny valley. Leaving behind his companion Starns as Deacon, the bishop continues his mission elsewhere. So begins an intense narrative of blood rituals, passion, and salvation.
This disturbing play questions whether being happy is just a temptation away from god, or if becoming our true selves is what the divine was hoping for all along. What is love? What is death? Playwright Romulus Linney delves into the murky depths of philosophy with a powerhouse cast at Main Stage West.
John Craven’s Bishop Ames grasps at the tragic yearning of his character’s journey, seeking the spiritual everywhere except in the people around him. His desperation, prostrating himself before the congregation, is emotionally charged and visually memorable. Representing the humanist perspective, Starns (Kevin Bordi) believes that love is the answer, willing to accept people where they are, rather than constantly attempting to shape an ideal paradise. His outburst in defense of his friends is empowering.
Representing two feuding families, Harlan (Elijah Pinkham) and Cora (Miranda Jane Williams) have a primitive ferocity to their physicality. A soft backdrop of misty ridges suggests the remote setting, but Pinkham and Williams transform it into reality. Their wild encounters are a mix of vicious fury and sensual release.
An orphan brought along by the bishop, Billy (Jereme Anglin) gives a rough narrative structure to the events without removing focus from the poignancy of this forceful play. He keeps the timeline moving at a brisk pace, avoiding awkward scene transitions, while becoming an engaging character in his own right.
The village midwife, Juba (mollie boice), presides over the odd strangers with knowing wisdom. She has seen the cycle of life and death. Her discernment is the force that keeps the community together, not fly-by-night preachers.
‘Heathen Valley’ is a disturbing story of obsession and loss. Glimmers of beauty flicker across its surface, only to be mercilessly snuffed out. This potent ensemble, under the direction of Elizabeth andJohn Craven, are mesmerizing. ‘Heathen Valley’ will force you to wonder whether the root of Christianity is in its rules and traditions or the truth of loving each other despite differences.
Heathen Valley Presented by Main Stage West through April 14, 2019 Thur/Fri/Sat at 8:00pm, Sun at 5:00pm
Main Stage West 104 North Main Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472 (707) 823-0177 www.mainstagewest.com
Photos by Eric Chazankin