“The Welkin” is an is-she-or-isn’t-she mystery

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The cast is on stage
"The Welkin" (front row l-r) Haley Wong (Sally Poppy), Paige Gilbert (Hannah Rusted), Susannah Perkins (Mary Middleton); (2nd row) Simone Recasner (Peg Carter), Ann Harada (Judith Brewer), (3rd row) Jennifer Nikki Kidwell (Ann Lavender), Tilly Botsford (Kitty Givens); (standing) Hannah Cabell (Sarah Hollis), Mary McCann (Charlotte Cary)
The cast is in a group on stage.
“The Welkin” (l-r) Dale Soules (Sarah Smith), Emily Cass McDonnell (Helen Ludlow), Sandra Oh (Lizzy Luke), Jennifer Nikki Kidwell (Ann Lavender), Tilly Botsford (Kitty Givens), (kneeling) Susannah Perkins (Mary Middleton), Haley Wong (Sally Poppy), Paige Gilbert (Hannah Rusted), Simone Recasner (Peg Carter), Nadine Malouf (Emma Jenkins)

Probably the oddest play I’ve seen this season is The Welkin, being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company. It is a solid ensemble piece with a mostly female cast, set in 1759 Suffolk, England. It is a story about justice vs. vengeance, about the strength it takes to stand against a commonly held opinion, about knowledge against ignorance. It is mesmerizing and maddening and it left me drained at its conclusion.

And its main question is if a woman is pregnant or not.

Sally Poppy, an outcast in her small country town, has been convicted of murder. Under the law, she must hang for her crime. But there is a loophole in the law: if Sally is pregnant, she cannot be hung but must be banished to a British colony. The problem is, Sally is not visibly showing a pregnancy “bump”. To determine if she is or not, twelve of the “good women” of the town are pressed into service to give an opinion as to whether or not Sally is telling the truth.

Most of the good women in the town are offended by the mere existence of Sally and are only too willing to say she’s lying, just so they can all go home. But the town’s midwife, played by the remarkable Sandra Oh, tries to get them to consider that, with someone’s life at stake — even someone as disagreeable and disliked as Sally — no stone must be left unturned in discovering the truth. However, too many women, including the midwife, have secrets of their own — many of which have some connection to Sally — that they are unwilling to have revealed.

The cast, which includes Ann Harada, Dale Soules, and a marvelous Haley Wong as Sally, is tightly woven into an ensemble of women who make you believe they have lived as a community for many years. While each character has her traits that give the audience a handle on class and temperament, none of them fall into easy stereotypical behaviors. For this, director Sarah Benson and playwright Lucy Kirkwood are to be praised. As for the two male characters, Glenn Fitzgerald’s Mr. Coombes, who must keep an eye on the ladies without speaking but who holds deep feelings for the midwife, is a marvel of patience and unexpected humor, while Danny Wolohan’s doctor, called in to perform a physical examination on Sally when the other ladies mistrust the midwife’s judgment, is all pompous efficiency, shielded by male and medical privilege.

Playwright Kirkwood’s underlying messages about female empowerment, mob mentality and the expediency of revenge, class distinctions, and society of shaming ring true today. She seems to say that not much has changed in that regard between 1759 and 2024. You owe it to yourself to determine these issues for yourself, and I suggest you do so by seeing a performance of The Welkin.

The Welkin is presented at the Linda Gross Theatre, 336 West 20th Street, by the Atlantic Theater Company in New York through July 7th, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to atlantictheater.org or call 646-452-2220.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.