By Daniel Skora
Five generations of women, all from the same family and all bearing the name Katherine are the subject of Kim Carney’s new play, “Katherine”, currently having its world premier at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova. The story begins in the Deep South near the beginning of the 20th century and ends in Michigan sometime near the present. We meet the first of the five Katherines in a barn searching for her daughter Kitty and carrying on a one-sided conversation with God. Katherine belongs to a family that works a peach farm, and because the peach trees are reaching the end of their cultivating prime, they look to the peanut plant as a source of future income.
The play proceeds in segments. Each of the “Katherines” receives around 15 minutes of the play’s approximate 90 minute running time to tell their story. All of the Katherines are played by Melissa Beckwith, and though “brilliant” is a word often applied but rarely achieved, brilliant is the perfect word to describe Beckwith’s performance. With changes in vocalization, wardrobe, and hairstyles, Beckwith easily transforms herself into five different women, unique in their personalities yet having similar physical appearances the result of their inherited genes. She captures a broad range of emotions and effectively changes her accents and speech patterns from southern rural to northern urban. Simply put, Carney’s script and Beckwith’s characterizations were made for each other.
Kitty will eventually find her way to the big city – Detroit, as it turns out, for playwright Carney is a Michigander and references local places for her settings. Kitty is desperately in need of work to support her family during the Great Depression and pleads with Mrs. Peabody at the employment agency for a job. Peabody, like all the other characters with whom the Katherines interact, is unseen in the play, a structural device which places the emphasis entirely on each of the Katherines. Kitty’s daughter, Kathy, will become a rich, jaded, alcoholic in need of psychiatric counseling. Kathy’s daughter Kate, after spending her younger years immersed in the drug culture, finds God in a tornado and becomes a motivational speaker. The “Katherine” cycle comes full circle with the last of the clan a modern business woman having contemporary issues and finding herself greatly in need of a cleansing.
“Katherine” is a wonderfully rewarding play about five fascinating women connected by family, blood, and the name which they have inherited from their respective mothers. They are an emotional bunch, their lives a constant flux between sadness and humor, between hope and regret. Though they have not always chosen the best paths in life, they have managed to survive with an unparalleled zest for life, and for that they are extremely lovable.
The story of Carney’s play is richly told. It’s intelligent and creative, the audience often required to piece together facts that are occasionally held back only to be disclosed at a later time. The personal stories of the women are told against the background of social and economic changes that occur over a century.
Director David Wolber never allows Beckwith to become stagnant, constantly moving her about the unadorned stage. Changes of costumes are largely accomplished in silhouette created by a backlit screen, providing a striking visual during scene changes and emphasizing the transformation in fashions over the years. Set and lighting design are by Daniel C. Walker, sound is by Carla Milarch.
Theatre Nova has had great success with one act, single actor plays. Its 2015 inaugural season contained two tremendously entertaining productions with riveting performances: “Buyer & Cellar” with Sebastian Gerstner, and “Grounded” with Deborah Keller. “Katherine”, with Melissa Beckwith, follows in that tradition. The show should not be missed.
“Katherine” runs through June 12th. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $20 and are available by calling 734.635-8450. Theatre Nova is located at 416 W. Huron Street, tucked away in the Yellow Barn a stone’s throw off the road in downtown Ann Arbor.