Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: IN THIS PLACE...

By Toby Zinman

Review: IN THIS PLACE...


By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer


Ain Gordon’s project, In This Place… is to find forgotten historic stories and theatrically remember them, rescuing them from the vanished past. His eighteen-month residency at the Painted Bride will eventually include a Philadelphia story in what will become a series of plays.  But this show, the first installment, takes place in Lexington, Kentucky.

It was here Gordon found an old house, slated for demolition, which turned out to have been built by Samuel Oldham in 1835. Oldham was a freed slave who bought his wife Daphney, and their sons, freedom. Who were these people? They lived in the house four years and then were gone. The Lexington archivist could find no headstones or any record of where or when they were born or buried.  And so Gordon invented personalities and events for this couple—how they met, courted, married, and raised two sons in that big brick two story house.

Michelle Hurst  plays Daphney Oldham, now a ghost, dead a hundred years, trying to retrieve her past, her life. That she knows she’s a ghost performing  in a theatre, with frequent meta comments (“Second Acts are tough”) seems a device both fake and unnecessary. There are blanks in her story,  omissions; some are a recognizable function of the way memory works, some a lack of information the playwright chose not to fill in. In This Place… is about history, which, like memory,  like drama, is necessarily selective; you can’t include everything.  

Some omissions are odd: as the decades go by, there is no mention of the Civil War although the Oldhams lived through it, and surely this would have mattered to  a black family living in Kentucky. And it seems transparently clear that a male playwright created this female voice—how unlikely  it is that a woman would barely mention her children. 

Knowing that we wonder if she loved Sam, she says, “You ask such modern questions.” Daphney asks us to imagine a time when lives were lived  in silence (except for, say, crickets) and darkness (except for, say, a candle).  In This Place… conjures up the texture of another time, another place, through personalities thickly drawn through dialogue (Hurst plays both Daphney and deep-voiced Sam).

And so the irritating use of technology seems shockingly inappropriate; why all this audio/visual accessorizing? Why two tech guys sitting onstage with sound boards, monitors and computers? Hurst can surely hold any stage herself without  projections,  not only of images but of portions of the script. This is theatre as PowerPoint, trivializing both the fascinating subject matter and distracting from the strong performance.


Painted Bride, 230 Vine Street. Through March 10. Tickets $25-30.

Information: 215-925-9914.



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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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