Kids and the Ku Klux Klan make for an unsettling mix. When author Karen Hesse confronts this conflict in her young adult novel Witness, it makes for a powerful story filled with tension and fear. It's 1924 in small-town Vermont. Leanora Sutter, a young African-American, and Esther Hirsh, a Jewish girl, face the hatred of the Klan. The town has been divided along the lines of loyalty, those who stand with the Klan versus those who stand against it.
Weather-beaten wood creates the frame of a barn; chairs and boxes scattered across the floor complete the play's barren environment. Forlorn fiddle music haunts the air as Jenique Hendrix as Leanora dances onto the stage. Many of Leanora's classmates refuse to dance with her in the school's pageant. Merlin van Tornhout (Peter Cayer), a young man hoping to impress the Klan, storms out on the performance, complaining that he can't get "the smell of her out of (his) nose, the soot of her out of (his) eyes." It is with this bleak set, this lonesome music, and this hate that the play opens.
Each citizen takes the stage to tell his or her part of the story, to offer individual perspectives on a shattered town. The local grocery owners, Harvey (Greg Byrne) and Viola Pettibone (Linda Loy), debate joining the Klan to increase business. Sheriff Percelle Johnson (Bill Gossin) struggles with the Klan's lawlessness. The Reverend Johnny Reeves (Michael Jensen Phillips), a supposed man of God, fights demons of pedophilia and racism. Iris Weaver (Stephanie M. Roosa), restaurateur and bootlegger, attempts to prove herself an independent woman in the face of worrisome times. And Reynard Alexander, the town's liberal newspaper editor-in-chief, attempts to hold on to his ethics in the face of threats.
It is Leanora and Esther (Elizabeth Criddle) who take the brunt of the Klan's attacks. Esther, a native New Yorker, is moved to Vermont by her father, a widower who hopes to raise Esther in the country air. They move in with a local spinster, Sarah Chickering (Virginia Flavin), who falls in love with mothering the little girl, adopting her as her own. When the Klan decides to chase the Sutters and the Hirshes out of town, the girls are forced to grow up fast and to rise above the fray.
Adapting a novel into a play seems to have been a difficult task in the case of Witness. The narrative has been transformed into a series of short monologues delivered by actors who rarely directly interact. Director Patricia Lewis stages the actors in observation, studying each other from individual perches. When Esther, in an attempt to reunite with her dead mother, sits on the tracks waiting for an oncoming train, Leanora must jump on Esther to save her. The girls pantomime the save, moving sympathetically, but never touching.
The lack of interaction, of simple eye contact or touch, makes for a cold experience. Of course, when the characters do touch, the warmth of those moments is powerfully tender. The lack of connection and the plodding pacing makes the production tedious. Although the play is based on a novel for young adults, it would take a very patient child to triumph in watching.
Hendrix and Criddle are talented young ladies. Their performances are engaging, enchanting, and professional. Both girls shine in their characterization.
Unfortunately, accents and speedy delivery, in combination with the vernacular and acoustics, made the dialogue difficult to understand. Additionally, a few of the actors who play characters imperative in communicating the message of the play are unsure of their lines. When so many characters come together to share their stories --- stories that are interrelated and add up to a complete understanding of the play --- it is essential that all of the actors not only know their dialogue, but the intention behind the words.
As in most young adult literature, the bad guys get their due and the good guys are rewarded. However, the moral of the play is disappointing in that the conflict and violence that so permeate the story are tidily wrapped up in the end.
Witness | through December 17 | Shipping Dock Theatre, Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince Street | $12-$22 |232-2250 | www.shippingdocktheatre.org.