“Fen,” Court Theatre’s revival of a 1983 Caryl Churchhill play, is about women in the rural lowlands of England. But the distant setting in a somewhat distant time doesn’t matter, because the conflicts are familiar. The rich exploit the poor, the land is abused, and the women twist themselves into pretzels to both fulfill their family obligations and find their own happiness.
Directed by Vanessa Stalling, this raw, brutal and amazing play dives into deep places of female sorrow and longing. Like its setting, it can be tough to navigate. But it cultivates empathy, which is one of the main reasons for art.
“Fen” tells interconnected stories of laborers on rich farmland that has been created out of wetlands. The women both support and judge each other. It’s hard to get away from scrutiny in such a close community.
In a remarkable set by Collette Pollard, the actors work literally in dirt, mounded into rows on tiered platforms. They dig real potatoes and bag real onions. As the play goes on, their clothes are increasingly soiled. One of the few male characters in the play, Frank (Alex Goodrich, who also plays the other male roles) drives an actual tractor across the set. Waterfowl call eerily in the distance. Interior settings are suggested by just a few pieces—a stove, a table—set in the dust.
The main character is Val, played by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, an impressive actress who recently won praise as Isabel in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Measure for Measure.” Val loves Frank, though he’s not much, and struggles to decide whether to live with him or her two young daughters by another man. She is criticized by other women—including her mother May (Elizabeth Laidlaw). Val’s attempt to seek solace in religion doesn’t work. It’s the same conflict faced by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—she can’t have romantic love and her children, too. Val can’t win.
Contrasting Val and her problem of having too much love to give is Angela, who has too little. She has a crush on Frank, and brutalizes her sensitive teenage stepdaughter, Becky (Lizzie Bourne). The most heartbreaking part of this is that Becky and Angela do, at some level, get along, and could be allies—but Angela, played with scary intensity by Morgan Lavenstein, can’t let go of her hateful power. Becky and Val’s children take out their rage and helplessness on Nell, whom they suspect of witchcraft. It’s only Nell (also Laidlaw) who seems to rise above the muck of this life and be true to herself, at one point literally walking on stilts.
The stellar six-person cast takes on twenty-one separate roles, creating some confusion but less than you’d think, given the quality of the performances. A standout is Genevieve VenJohnson, who manages to be a slippery business woman (with comically giant eighties shoulder pads); a wise older villager; an impressionable member of a Baptist women’s group; and a six-year-old girl.
The play includes visitations from the past, both in stories about ancestral struggles and actual ghosts. Some of the most moving parts of the play involve singing by members of the cast—the final song prompted audience tears. The singing represents the harmony that eludes the characters—they could figure this out together, but they don’t know how.
“Fen” at Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis, (773)753-4472, courttheatre.org. Through March 5.