Anna Moench’s new play brings marital strife to the Southern Baptist Homemaking House.
Photo by Christopher Genovese
What defines you as a person? Is it your job, your relationship, your religion? How much can you give up or change to fit someone else's ideal and still remain you?
These are just a few of the questions at the heart of Anna Moench's penetrating new play In Quietness, directed by Danya Taymor and produced by Dutch Kills Theater. In the piece, jet-setting businesswoman Max comes home to her bohemian writer husband Paul and is greeted with an avalanche of revelations: Paul is having an affair, the woman he loves is in a coma and he now needs to find God to forgive himself.
Before long, Paul is in training to become a preacher at a Southern Baptist seminary, and to accompany him Max has taken on a position at the Homemaking House, where good Christian women learn all the skills they need to support their pastor husbands. There, trapped between a perfectionist instructor for whom cleanliness is practically godliness, a fellow student whose greatest aspiration is for her future husband to quash her own ambitions and her own husband who is clearly still in love with someone else, Max must learn to be a Christian wife or she will lose it all.
At first glance, In Quietness would seem to take a critical attitude toward Christianity, but that proves to be far from the case. Its immense sympathy for both the religious and the non-religious extends from Max's unabashed feminism to Beth's quiet dignity expressed through the most touching moments of prayer. In fact, if there is one character who playwright Moench appears to lack empathy for, it is Paul, an archtypical free-spirited writer who becomes a fervent Christian too quick to judge his neighbors. As each person at the seminary struggles to reconcile their belief system with the realities of their lives, they must choose the life they want to live and who they are willing to bring with them.
Nuanced performances from the entire cast light up the rather cerebral script, from Dusty's (Rory Kulz) brief appearance as the last man anyone would expect to see in the Homemaking House to Terri's (Alley Scott) rigid optimism and Paul (Blake DeLong) as a a fundamentally lost man who doesn't realize he is taking his wife down with him. But the most impressive performances come from Lucy DeVito, whose moving sermons as Beth are almost as impressive as the young woman's self-denial, and Kate MacCluggage as the blustering businesswoman Max, her true humility hidden beneath it all. Beth's growing confidence and frustration for the status quo throughout the play serves as a foil for Max's diminishing sense of self as each seeks to become what they imagine a good wife to be.
Moving seamlessly between argument, confession and preaching, In Quietness extolls the power of language. Yet, the most beautiful moments of the play occur within what is not said: Max must finish ordering Thai food on the phone after Paul announces he is having an affair. Paul reacts to a moving prayer for strength from Beth, better than he could have ever spoken. Max silently, patiently folds Paul's laundry without being asked. And in an extraordinary scene of willful denial, Terri monologues for longer than anyone can imagine about her father's old tailor while Max, Paul and Beth cannot bear to look at each other.
The ending of Moench's play is left vague, what will happen in the future for Max and Paul's relationship as well as for Beth and the rest an open question. But despite the lack of resolution in regards to the woman Paul was having an affair with, her presence in the piece limited to the faint recurring sounds of a hospital heart monitor, we understand that we have witnessed a profound transformation in these characters and their world views. Ensconced in the simple elegance of a bare wooden shell of a church, they are always in the presence of God—or at least of Christianity. Only in this space can all of their illusions about themselves finally be stripped away.
In Quietness is first and foremost a thought-provoking piece, but its layered characters and biting humor make it a pleasure to watch. Add in the educational aspect of learning along with Max the right way to wash windows and remove scratches from a wooden floor, and we're left with a work of art. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this play will challenge your views on religion, feminism and everything in between.
In Quietness plays at Walkerspace through January 30.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.