by Julie Congress · September 28, 2014
Lynne McCollough, Erin Treadway, Brian White & Tanis Rivera Lepore | Hunter Canning
Leaving the theatre after The Twelfth Labor is like reluctantly waking up from a dream. For over two and a half hours, playwright Leegrid Stevens transports us into another world - a small post World War II Idaho farm. We see through another set of eyes, hear through another set of ears, dream through another’s dreams. This is, in my opinion, the greatest gift a play can offer - not to mention that the show is seamlessly directed, beautifully designed and features devastatingly honest, powerful performances.
October 15, 1949. Cleo informs her siblings that daddy is coming home today. She knows this on account of a dream she had. Little by little we learn that daddy has been gone since 1941, taken prisoner by the Japanese and somewhere half a world away. We also see that Cleo is something quite special - she has confusion with certain speech sounds, is deemed slow by others, yet possesses an enigmatic prophetic quality. The play unfolds forward and back from Cleo’s mind - a beautifully shifting landscape that dances between the natural and the surreal - so that we never quite know where we are headed, as the story and characters envelope us.
Esther (mama) has a face of granite and a spine of steel. She has been running the farm in her husband’s absence, the only way to ensure her family’s survival. As strong and unsentimental as she is, she has somehow been unable to beat that same strength into her children. Cruce, Cleo’s brother, is lame in one leg after an accident with a horse; pretty sister Donna can only think of boys and romance; and young little Herk is perpetually getting in trouble with Esther, despite Cleo’s protection. Through Cleo’s lense, secrets reveal themselves and we see and hear the moments that formed each of these people into who they are now.
Inspired by the twelve labors of Hercules, Stevens’ epic family drama flows so naturally and freely from its source material that it was only in retrospect, for me at least, that I began to gently align the labors to the plot. More evident is the source material drawn from the classic movies of the time - The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind and Abbott & Costello.
Director Matt Torney expertly allows a pacing that both holds our attention with plenty of natural rhythmic shifts to keep us alert and allows the all-star cast of eleven to breathe and take the time needed to bring honesty to their roles. Erin Treadway is stunning as Cleo - she does not portray “special needs” nor a series of symptoms nor rely on cliches, but instead brings to life an utterly unique young woman in all of her complexity, whose reality and emotions shift ever so subtly with every breath. Whenever Lynne McCollough, as Esther, is onstage it feels as though the small theatre cannot contain her - her power, even in stillness, is palpable and every action, no matter how disagreeable it may be to us, is completely justified in this resilient matriarch’s mind. Jed Dickson, delivering a tour-de-force monologue, embraces simplicity and provides a vital reminder for our modern age that well-spoken words can still be trusted to vividly tell a story.
Set Designer Carolyn Mraz’s impressive wooden house frame and Costume Designer Nicole Wee’s period outfits ground the production in a time gone by, while Leegrid Stevens’ subtle sound design reminds us of our unique vantage point within this world from Cleo’s memories and imagination.
I was already a huge admirer of Leegrid Stevens’ work - I directed a production of his Sun Stand Thou Still in college and was blown away by Spaceman - but The Twelfth Labor has solidified him in my mind as one of the most brilliant playwrights (and probably my favorite) writing today. But don’t take my word for it - The Twelfth Labor runs until October 11, so go visit with Cleo and her family yourself!