REVIEW: “Folk” at Chester Theatre Company

by Macey Levin

When you walk into Chester Theatre Company you hear strains of Irish music – some cheerful, some mellow.  Not only does this tell you where you’re going to be for ninety minutes, but it also sets the tone for the American premiere of Tom Wells’ sweet and poignant play Folk.

You are in the home of Sister Winnie (Michele Tauber,) a gregarious and warmhearted nun who drinks stout, smokes Marlboros and occasionally curses.  Her old friend Stephen (Michael Sean McGuinness) is playing his guitar while Winnie sings and shows her love for the Virgin Mary as she carries her statue while prancing around the living room.  This is their ritual Friday evenings, but this one is difficult since they have been at the funeral of a teen-age boy who died in a car accident and they are trying to bring some joy back into their lives.  This moment of comfort is broken when a brick is thrown through the window.   Sister Winnie quickly rushes outside and brings fifteen-year-old Kayleigh (Emery Henderson) into the house with her.  These are the opening moments of a play about love, understanding and acceptance.

That evening, after apologies and forgiveness, Winnie urges Kayleigh to sing with her and Stephen, who is reluctant to be as giving as Winnie, ultimately participates.   Stephen, a reserved repairman who cares for his aged father, doesn’t trust anyone he does not know or who has committed an act of vandalism.  As the weeks go on Winnie, who knew Kayleigh when she was a child, guides her into a gentler life than she has known.

One day Kayleigh asks Stephen to help her learn the guitar which he is unwilling to do.  But suddenly he gives her a pipe he has whittled and hesitatingly starts to teach her. She learns quickly and the three of them share their love of music as they play and sing together.  Soon they each meet a personal crisis that they face with concern and compassion.

Playwright Wells knows his characters well since elements of the play are based on his own life.  These are small town northern English people who know their town, may be wary of some of the populace but are usually tolerant of those who surround them.  He uses Irish references and expressions in their conversations lending the work a sense of verisimilitude.  The dialogue is structured with the charming country lilt; it rings true and is easy to listen to.  The characters are people one could meet anywhere imbuing them with honest reactions to the various situations that unfold.

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Director James Warwick has staged the play in Chester’s theatre-in-the-round configuration with an atmospheric set designed by Travis George who has done fine work creating the homey ambience of Winnie’s home. This kind of playing space, especially in an intimate theatre, draws the audience more readily into the lives of the characters and the charged impact of events.  The finest compliment one can give to a director is that his work doesn’t show, but has allowed his actors to find their characters’ lives.  Keeping with the nature of the play he eschews histrionics and melodrama… just three people trying to live.  He effectively uses the space allowed by the playing area giving the cast the comfort of comfort and exciting the audience’s eyes.

It is the actors who make the play live.  Henderson’s Kayleigh is spirited and holds the stage with technique and confidence beyond her years.  She is a graduating senior at Northampton High School.  Kayleigh often offers perceptive and wise observations putting her new-found friends to shame.  When first Winnie brings her into the room she is scared and tentative, but when at ease due to the nun’s reassurances, she becomes more and more vivacious and positive in her dealings with the adults.  She utters perceptive and wise observations.

Stephen is a man that life has beaten. His father berates him, he doesn’t like his job and feels unappreciated.  His joys are few, the Friday night music gatherings with Winnie being the highlight of his week.  When Kayleigh becomes part of the circle he is resentful but gentlemanly.  McGuinness etches a sensitive portrayal for the most complex character in the play.

Tauber is a gentle dynamo as Winnie.  She commands the stage with the breadth and subtleties of her character as she plows ahead to assist the teen-ager and the reserved workman.  Joy leaps from her as she talks about the Virgin Mary and other saints, including some she makes up like St. Epsom, the saint of baths.  She can issue hysterical throwaway lines and the next moment become soft and caring.  It is a sensitive and affecting performance.  And yet, the audience feels as if they are commiserating with real people who are part of their lives.

The costumes by Heather Crocker Aulenback connote the place the characters have in their small town’s societal structure.  They are attractive but not out-of-place or distracting.  James McNamara’s lighting and sound enhance Wells and Warwick’s perception of these three people caught in an important moment in their lives.

Folk is a sweet play effectively directed and acted.  You will laugh and be touched by a truly striking theatrical experience.

Folk by Tom Wells, Directed by James Warwick; Cast: Emery Henderson (Kayleigh) Michael Sean McGuinness (Stephen) Michele Tauber (Sister Winnie); Scene design: Travis George; Costume design: Heather Crocker Aulenback; Lighting design and Sound design: James McNamara; Stage Manager: Keri Schultz; Music Consultant: Katryna Nields; Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission; Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA; From 8/17/17; closing 8/27/17

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