Malcolm is missing. The 17-year-old has been gone all night. His mother, Ruth, grows frantic.
In “Son of Soil,” playwright Andie Berry examines the ways tragedy and grief echo across generations. In the face of bereavement, is healing possible? Or does catastrophe foster its own inescapable momentum?
On March 30, the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis will present the world premiere of “Son of Soil” in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre. The play, which runs through April 2, is winner of the university’s 2016 A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition.
“This is tough, beautiful, lyrical work,” said director Annamaria Pileggi, professor of practice in the PAD. “Three women — Ruth, Patricia and Sage — deal with loss, with racism and with the systematic violence that plagues their community.
“There is hope in the play, but it’s a fraught, tenuous sort of hope,” Pileggi added.
“The healing is hard-won.”
An act of mercy…
Set in small-town Ohio, the story centers on best friends Ruth and Patricia, who share a terrible secret. Years ago, when Ruth was pregnant with Malcolm and Patricia pregnant with twins, their community suffered a rash of killings. In response, the pair made a pact to drown their sons in the river.
“They saw it as an act of mercy,” Pileggi explained. “They wanted to spare their sons the violence into which they’d been born.”
Sage, another childhood friend, sent her son out of town. And though Ruth, kneeling by the riverside, found herself unable to follow through with the pact, Patricia kept her word. She drowned her son but raised his twin sister, Nia.
Now, 17 years later, in the wake of Malcolm’s sudden death, Ruth learns that Nia is pregnant with Malcolm’s child. “Ruth sees an opportunity to end this terrible tradition,” Pileggi said. “But to Patricia and Sage, Ruth’s protectiveness feels like betrayal.”
In a Record interview last fall, the playwright Berry, a senior in Arts & Sciences, explained that the “Son of Soil” offers “a glimpse into a town that has experienced great division and tragedy within the space of two generations.”
The story was “inspired by my experience as a black woman as well as the events that have transpired around St. Louis over the last few years — including the death of Michael Brown and the way in which Ferguson was thrown into a national spotlight. My ultimate desire for the play is that the audience feels hope — and that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a happy ending, but that there is the possibility of happiness.”
Pileggi, who directed a staged reading last October, notes that Berry has continued to sharpen and refine her script even as cast and crew prepared for full production.
“Andie has worked as fiercely as the women in the play,” Pileggi said. “The kernel I felt in her first draft is still there, but it has been deepened and enriched. These characters have wants and needs as well as conflict and, hopefully now, a sort of resolution.
“The journey has been full and rich.”
Cast and crew
The cast of seven is led by Michell Miller as Ruth, Tiffany Powell as Patricia and Ebby Offord as Sage. Angela Alexander is Nia. Alex Felder is Murphy, the officer who delivers news of Malcolm’s death. Assistant director Zach Schultz is Ruth’s old friend Haverford. Noah Weiner is Nia’s classmate Kyle.
Scenic design is by Yin Li. Costumes are by J.C. Krajicek. Lighting and sound are by Eric Elz and Armen Festekjian. Stage manager is Kaia Lyons, with assistance from Maddie Seibold. Props master is Emily Frei, with assistance from scenic artist Sarah Azizo.
Technical director is Mike Loui. Rob Morgan is scenic design advisor. Sallie Durbin is costume shop manager. Sean Savoie is production manager, with assistance from Ben Lewis. James Prifti is production stage manager.
Sponsored by the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, the festival is named for alumnus A.E. Hotchner, who famously bested Tennessee Williams in a campus playwriting competition
“Son of Soil” begins at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 30, 31 and April 1; and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 1 and 2.
Performances take place in Edison Theatre, located in Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20 to the public, $15 for students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff, and $10 for WashU students. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office.
For more information, call 314-935-6543.