Signature Theatre commissioned British-born, New York-based playwright Bathsheba Doran to write a play based on a specific historical event: the case of Suzanna Cox, the first woman executed in Pennsylvania after the former colony became a state under the Constitution of the United States of America. The results are on stage now in the premiere of the play "Nest," in the smaller of Signature's two theaters in its new complex in Shirlington.
The idea for the play came from Signature's Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, who grew up in the area of Pennsylvania where the episode occurred and where Cox remains a topic of fascination 200 years after she was hanged for killing her infant son. Cox was a 24-year-old indentured servant when she gave birth out of wedlock. She claimed the child was stillborn, but the local constable developed evidence that he had been born alive and strangled.
DORAN HAS fashioned a highly theatrical history play out of the events. It fascinates in its early scenes, which establish the world of Suzanna Cox and her relationship with the family into whose service she was indentured for a period of years. To keep the play from seeming confined to the household, Doran adds the characters of a Philadelphia publisher and a writer he hires to create a serial "Ballad of Suzanna Cox" with a string of cliffhanging climaxes so he can sell successive installments to a waiting public. One other character that Doran creates is that of Daniel Boone, who appears as a figment of Cox's imagination.
As the scope of the play expands it becomes a bit confusing and loses some of the tight focus that the story holds at the start. Still, the story on which it is based is one that many will find intriguing and that can trigger many fascinating conversations over the issues involved. Audiences should be cautioned, however, that there are some strongly sexual scenes in the short, one-act play.
COX IS PLAYED as an intelligent but sheltered, uneducated young woman by Anne Veal. She yearns for something more than servitude, fantasizing about the opportunities that the western wilderness offers, and Veal lets the audience see the innate intelligence of the woman as well as her sense of frustration over the limitations her situation imposes.
The relationship between Cox and the childless couple she serves is the central feature of the play. Charlie Matthes plays the man in the house where Cox is indentured. He's the one who impregnates Cox. Matthes gives the character a charm he can turn on and off at will, successfully seducing and controlling his ignorant but pretty servant. He, too, is a study in frustration although his thoughts turn not to the wilderness in the west but to the cosmopolitan world to the east in Philadelphia.
Completing the picture of this household of frustration is the childless wife played with a nice sense of reserve by Vanessa Lock.
James Slaughter and Michael Grew make a good team as the publisher and the writer. Slaughter is delightfully droll as a most sophisticated, worldly wise gentleman who sees opportunity in the case of Cox, and Grew gets in a few really sharp barbs in their scenes together. Doran's script gives more of a challenge to Richard Pelzman who plays the Daniel Boone of Suzanna Cox's imagination. Because he is a figment of the other character's imagination, it isn't always clear to the audience just why this Daniel Boone is doing or saying some of the things he does. However, as is always the case with Pelzman, the performance is strong, clear and well delivered.
All of this transpires on a simple but impressive set designed by James Kronzer, consisting principally of a room-sized platform of wooden planking.
A few chairs and a table create either the rural home or the public house in the city with the differences in Chris Lee's lighting helping to make clear which is which. Sound effects by Matthew M. Nielson help create the environment of early nineteenth century Pennsylvania.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.