Sex is natural. Repression is bad. Ignorance is dangerous. Poverty is deadly. Patriarchy is oppressive. These and other less-than-revelatory assertions are at the heart of Good Heif, a coming-of-age tale with an avant-garde patina that is currently enjoying its premiere as part of the New Georges 2007-2008 season. Unfortunately, generally strong staging and admirable performances cannot save the text from its undercurrent of condescension and self-congratulation.
Formed in 1992, New Georges' mandate is to encourage the work of female theatre artists. Over the course of fifteen years, the company has produced a number of notable premieres and helped to launch the careers of an impressive array of aspiring playwrights. Given the company’s mission statement Good Heif is a self-consciously playful selection, as its narrative is structured around the sexual awakening of an adolescent male. The trials of a pubescent male in a patriarchal society, as rendered by a playwright and a director who are both women and presented by a famously feminist theatre company: this seems to have all the makings of a provocative, subversive piece of gender-political theater.
Instead, Brooklyn-based playwright Maggie Smith has written about “men” in a generalized “rural” setting, constructing the rural male as “other” in a way that feels dismissive and often mean-spirited. “If only these idiot characters of mine could see what I and my laudably sophisticated/liberated audience see, they would stop oppressing the earth, themselves, and each other,” she seems to say. To be fair, Smith is apparently aiming for something “universal” here, but universalizing often results in the reductive rather than the enlightening, and her play is no exception.
Good Heif is set on a vaguely defined barren landscape, rendered by set designer Lauren Helpern to look kind of like the cracked-desert photograph on the cover of Midnight Oil’s 1987 Blue Sky Mining. The characters dig into the dry earth, although they do not seem certain what it is they are digging for, and it is later revealed that they fear and suppress the rare instances of water bubbling to the surface. Off in the distance are trees with leaves, and what should be the promise of a more fertile life, but the desert locals demonize that place, calling it “over thar” and suspect that may be where the “divul” makes his home.
Lad (Christopher Ryan Richards) is alarmed to find that his body is changing and asks Pa (John McAdams) if he is becoming a man. The most visible sign of Lad’s impending manhood is the show’s primary visual gag: his persistent erection. Pa advises Lad to relieve his sexual longing with a heifer until he can find a suitable woman, and equates sex with digging into a hole in the ground. Ma (Barbara Pitts) is not to be told about these changes in her son; she is a hard-working but sickly woman and such news might push her over the edge.
Lad meets a mysterious feminine creature (April Matthis) who may or may not be the devil his parents have warned him about. She is from “over thar,” and while she doesn’t know what sex is either, she is far more open to finding out, and to exploring both Lad and the world with an open curiosity. Culture clashes, exorcisms, beatings, and coming-of-age ensue.
Director Sarah Cameron Sunde has crafted a visually compelling production and worked with her actors to create a cohesive and consistent ensemble. The performers in general are disciplined and energetic, committing to the seamless and concrete realization of this rather abstracted world. The program notes mention that Good Heif has had a long rehearsal process and incorporated a variety of techniques, and the admirable ensemble work onstage demonstrates the benefits of such a process.
All of this praiseworthy work, however, cannot obscure the intellectual laziness of the text. Smith has tried to infuse her play with a great deal of humor, but all of the jokes are ultimately at the expense of her characters. The audience are invited to laugh along with her as she chastises their ignorance and stubbornness; their fears are shown to be destructive, yes, but are also presented as so ridiculous and unfathomable that we simply judge their actions rather than seek solutions for change.
Publicity materials for Good Heif state that Smith’s “language is spare, simple and straightforward” but that “the life beneath the language is complicated, gnarled, and dangerous.” This may very well have been the intent of the play and the production, but there is little “complicated” or “dangerous” about inviting the audience to pat themselves on their backs for their enlightened views while laughing scornfully at those who live in fear of themselves, of each other, and of the world around them.