PICT previewed its world premiere of For the Tree to Drop, written by Lissa Brennen and directed by Alan Stanford, last week. This show is a snapshot of life on a plantation in the 1860s and is a story about slavery, family and grief.
We are first introduced to a defiant slave Henry (Justin Lonesome), and very quickly we learn that he is the ghost of a slave recently hanged for his continuous attempts to escape the plantation. Lonesome plays him in a very soft spoken yet proud and full of life, even in death. He watches over his sister Estella (Siovhan Christensen) as she grieves beneath his body, still hanging from the tree. Her deepest desire is to see her brother honored and buried in the earth. Estella spends day and night beneath the tree, digging a hole and praying for the rope to give. Exhaustion and hunger slowly lead to delirium, her mind fixed only on her digging. Occasionally Henry sings to Estella, Lonesome delivers a soulful lullaby.
Christensen’s performance is heartbreaking. Her struggle is apparent as she kneels in the dirt digging, her eyes fixed on the unseen body of her unseen brother swelling with despair. Her sadness is only ever overcome by anger when Edgar is near, only giving way to express her defiance.
She has only a few visitors while toiling under the tree; Edgar (David Whalen) often stops by to taunt and torment her. He is a mean, self-righteous man led by the patriarchal ideals by which his plantation and life abide by. Whalen moves slowly and purposefully around the stage, his gaze piercing anyone he interacts with; he clutches either his riding crop or blood red handkerchief while he circles the others like a predator.
Her mother Theenie (Linda Haston) visits the tree pleading with her daughter to eat and sleep and to quit drawing attention herself and wrath upon the others. Theenie has been hardened by years as a slave on the plantation; she has seen slaves lose their lives before and she expects this will not be the last. Her goal is not to provoke nor have her daughter subject to punishment. Haston played the callous mother very well, but I was surprised at the lack of emotion shown towards the death of her son.
Last of the visitors is Edgar’s wife, Clarinda (Karen Baum). Dressed up like an expensive doll Baum almost floats across the stage at times because of the rigidness of the fine clothes and learned grace. She is an empty woman, aimless and without purpose. She spends her days dressing herself up, staring out her window and undressing in the evening with the occasional social event sprinkled here and there. When she leaves her pedestal in the house, Baum darts around the stage like an excited child at a park, even throwing herself in the dirt in an offer to help with the digging. Although her comfort level was exponentially higher than that of the slaves, ownership over her own life still fell into the hands of Edgar, for she is just his polished and painted property.
The show is held in a small space inside the Trust Arts Education center, giving it an intimate feeling and making it easy to read the faces of those on stage. Each character had a small raised strip of stage that represented where they would be found when not at the pit where Estella is digging at the front of the stage. Whalen can be seen sleeping in his rocking chair, Haston working in the kitchen, while Baum walks up a small flight of stairs to sit very still and look very bored for a majority of the show. All the while, Christensen is either pulling dirt and gravel out of a pit or sprawled across the loose earth. Lonesome can be seen silently moving about, sitting under the stairs or watching from the back, never drawing too much attention to himself and always seeming to fade away after he speaks. At the rear of the stage a sheet is hanging where dirt roads and the trunk of a tree are projected amoung other things. The sound was done very well; dogs could be heard barking, slaves singing in the fields and the ominous sound of creeking rope, really helped form the scene where the stage lacked.
The story is tragic and full of emotion revolving around the grim death of Henry and those feelings are presented to the audience, both in direction and ability, in an authentic way. What it also does well is sum up the ideals of the system and what it produces with five distinct characters and the interactions between them. There was no need for imagery of men in chains and scarred flesh for the audience to understand the hopeless oppression faced by the slaves. This picture was painted by Edgar’s arrogant, belittling speech and with Theenie’s strict adherence to orthodoxy even in the wake of her son’s murder. Any time a character glances anxiously upwards the audience is reminded of the festering corpse hanging from the tree, compared to that of fruit rotting on a branch. Every time Estella glances up at her brother, we are reminded of the grief and injustice endured by so many.
The performance reviewed was a preview show and I would like to extend a special thank you to PICT for the complementary press tickets. You can see For the Tree to Drop through February 28th and tickets can be purchased here. Photo credits Suellen Fitzsimmons.
Performance Date: Thursday, February 19, 2015