by Heather Lee Rogers · January 24, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #41: Heather Lee Rogers looks at My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer at The Flea
My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer by Brian Watkins is an intriguing yet flawed drama about two sisters currently playing at The Flea. Danya Taymor directs. Sarah and Hannah both live at home in the wild, desolate plains of Colorado with their ailing widowed Mother whom they both resent. Sarah, the oldest, stays home to take care of their Mother, the house and their Mother’s last surviving sheep. Hannah, the youngest, works at a restaurant, hates her broken car and stays away from the house as much as possible. The daughters don’t see eye to eye on much. They are restless and unhappy, trapped in their lives.
The first half of the play is all set-up, laying out the scene of how their world operates, what each of them does with their days and how they feel about their family, the town etc.. Then halfway through the hour-long play, their recollections turn in unison to the story of their mother’s birthday which went horribly, violently wrong. This is when the play picks up steam. Then once a surreal series of events coalesce into a terrifically complicated jam the play suddenly and unsatisfyingly ends…
But before the ending, there is some beautiful work. I really appreciated the detailed, specific choices that Katherine Folk-Sullivan as Sarah and Layla Khoshnoudi as Hannah put into their management of the challenging and problematic text. The whole play is non-stop speaking/story-telling with the two actresses directly addressing the audience. Although they are aware of each other and onstage beside each other, they rarely interact as they tell us about the events from the past that they participated in together. It is like watching and hearing two alternating personal essays of remembrance. It is all narrative and, at times, exhaustively descriptive. Running just over an hour, the play still feels too long. Despite the challenge of making text like that compelling on stage, both actresses admirably succeed most of the time and stay solidly committed to their connection with the audience. Make no mistake: these are two very strong, young actresses. Under Taymor’s direction, it is their emotional intensity relaying these memories and the nuances they bring to sharing each new memory with the audience that carry the audience’s attention. The nicely developed quirks and perversities of their personalities are at times spellbinding in the dark world of the play.
Also, the lighting design by John Eckert is absolutely stunning. In darkness Sarah begins the play with a spooky story from her childhood while she stands behind a scrim. Then a dynamic series of light and shadow silhouettes wheel across the curtain, dramatically plunging us in and out of light as she continues to speak in this prelude section of the play. I also enjoyed that as Sarah gets to places where she needs to divulge more personal information, she puts herself in a special lamplight, like it’s a judgment-free safety zone where she can confess to us the darker memories.
While there are many reasons to see the show, there are some puzzling aspects of the play which unfortunately distract from some fine acting and design work on stage. Even the title, My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer, is strange. If there is a hammer in the house, it would naturally be Sarah who might keep track of the tools and use them since the mother is ill. But there is no hammer mentioned in the play and the entire script is delivered in the first person by the two sisters. So to have the title be the voice of a parent makes me wonder if that was significant to some anecdote cut from an earlier draft. I also wondered if it was a reference to a poem or song I am unfamiliar with, but an internet search came up with nothing. The play has some powerful images and great characters but My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer is still a draft or two from done.