Balagula Theatre presented the world premiere of a powerful and beautiful play Sunday evening. This production of The Year of the Rabbit is part of the award that dramatist Keliher Walsh received when she won the Kentucky Women Writers Conference's first Prize for Women Playwrights, and the quality of the show, under Natasha Williams' direction, certainly gives the play a healthy start to its life on the stage.
The Year of the Rabbit is a stirring meditation on themes of love, selfishness and sacrifice, expressed in gorgeous poetic language by archetypal characters drawn with individual specificity. The serviceable plot linking six main characters through two American wars (those in Vietnam and Afghanistan) provides a sturdy frame for Walsh's philosophical discourse, at once deeply cerebral and emotional.
Williams' unfussy staging allows fluid movement through the play's epic places and times without ever losing the intimacy of personal reflection, and her set design is visually arresting without cluttering the space. The imaginative, haunting sound design by Rob Thomas and the ethereal, color-saturated lighting design by Tom Willis work effectively in tandem with Williams' concepts to bring this new play off the page with immense theatricality. The cumulative effect of the design elements is to suggest that the play's setting is the hollow interior of the human heart; in other words, they have brought the subtext to the surface and expressed it thoroughly in visual terms.
The strong production values strengthen the overall impact of the performances, which are variable in quality. Central to the story is the Vietnamese woman Lieu, who also acts as a shamanistic narrator. The lovely Priyanka Shrestha plays Lieu with a fatalistic calm, born more of dread than of resignation, and although her vocal projection is often too mellow, she etches a poignant figure throughout.
In the role of the black American soldier who encounters Lieu, Buddy Clark seems wooden, and he delivers many of his lines, which are clearly meant to be impassioned, quite dispassionately. However, he focuses his character with a stoic intensity that is interesting to watch. According to the program, this is Clark's later-in-life stage debut, so the degree to which he has been able to fulfill this complex dramatic challenge is admirable.
As his and Lieu's daughter Kara, now a fighter pilot in Afghanistan, Adanma Barton also gives a concentrated performance. On the one hand, she displays a limited range of physical and facial gestures, but this works for the rigid, conflicted character, and like Clark, she is never uninteresting in her part.
Ryan Hastings, in the role of Kara's white colleague and lover Brice, gives a beautiful, well-calibrated performance, very natural in movement and line readings. His characterization is full of simple subtleties, and he expresses the poetry of the text with eloquent lyricism, providing the heart-rending emotional center for the play.
Brice's parents are played with similar fullness by Ron Shull and Esther Harvey. Like Hastings, Harvey inhabits her character with effortless naturalism, allowing the audience to understand and empathize with her moment by moment. Shull also commands attention easily in all his scenes, but there is a certain staginess to his manner that seems more self-aware than Hastings and Harvey and that sticks out compared to their complete immersion into their roles.
Both the new play itself and its highly effective world-premiere production add considerably to the artistic achievement of Balagula Theatre in this season.