Reviewed by Stephen Gashler
A play for young audiences set in the Great Depression in a small town in Illinois, Mother Hicks (by Suzan Zeder) is the story of an abandoned girl – appropriately named Girl – in search of a home and an identity. This female answer to Huckleberry Finn wanders from place to place, from the rough crowds on the wrong side of the train tracks to the well-off and well-mannered, though she never seems to fit in. She crosses paths with Tuc, a deaf and dumb man who, like Girl, is overlooked and belittled by society. Tuc as something of a guardian ange, looks out for Girl when no one else will. Tuc is also a sign language poet.
Speaking of misfits, there’s no shortage of local gossip about the old hermit, Mother Hicks. Rumor has it that she’s a witch, responsible for virtually every mishap in town from milks cows gone dry to the deaths of young children. Girl is inspired by the way Mother Hicks commands the fear of the town, and wishing to take such power upon herself, rebelliously delves into the dark arts. But when a dangerous ritual goes awry, a wounded Girl is in trouble and Tuc, ever looking out for her, carries her to the home of none other than the elusive Mother Hicks.
Girl finds herself in an eclectic cottage full of wild animals and face-to-face with the town “witch.” Through some hard lessons, she’s forced to learn for herself about real power, real healing, and real identity.
The cast of Mother Hicks is full of rich characters. Girl (Emma Eugenia Belnap) is full of passion and a driving force for the play. It was a delight to discover the personality of Mother Hicks (McKell Petersen), who is at first shrouded in mystery but then commands the show with her matriarchal presence. McKell had me convinced that she was quite a few decades older than she is. Tuc (Matt McGill) has a sweet innocence and honesty that provide a great balance to the more domineering characters. There are many other fun and well-played characters (from the gossiping housewife to the general store clerk to the town drunk) who collectively succeed at painting an iconic Mayberry. I found myself lost in an America long-gone yet nostalgically familiar, a more innocent time when barefoot boys and girls knew that adventure was just around the corner, and witches frequented graveyards.
Suzan Zeder’s play is packed with thoughtful themes in a charming setting. I loved the exploration of an all-American brand of witchcraft that was still alive and well in the twentieth century. I loved the coming of age themes that young audiences will identify with and the tasteful treatment of harder themes like overcoming prejudice and broken relationships. Director John Newman did a great job at bringing out these ideas, giving my two young daughters and I a lot to talk about as we exited the theater.
Visually, the show isn’t lacking in eye candy. The costumes (designed by Scott Edward Twichell) all felt natural, and the set (designed by Stephen Purdy), with a sandy base, gorgeous backdrops, and eclectic yet minimalistic set pieces such as rustic wheels, barrels, and crates, added a lot to the tone of the play and never got in the way. I was especially impressed by the lighting effects (designed by Jaron Kent Hermansen and Laicey M. Giddy-Brown), clouds, and stars. The coolest scene is when Girl is practicing her witchcraft, and it looks as if she’s surrounded by rippling water on a sandy beach. I felt as I was right there with her.
UVU’s Mother Hicks is a quality student production and a great play for young audiences. It takes a little imagination to properly envision some of the actors as their characters’ ages, but such are the natural limitations of student theatre. Thankfully, kids have much better imaginations than adults, and if they’re like my kids, they’ll have a good time watching Mother Hicks. Without being too scary, it’s just heavy enough to get young (and old) minds turning. I look forward to seeing the other plays in this series (known as the Ware Trilogy) by Suzan Zeder.
Performed at the UVU Noorda Theatre
800 West University Pkwy MS 234, Orem, UT 84058
Runs January 14th – 30th
MThFS 7:30 PM
Saturdays at 2:00 PM
NOTE: ASL Interpreters are scheduled be at the following performances!!
Saturday January 16 @ 2p
Thursday January 21 @ 7:30p
Friday January 29 @ 7:30p
Tickets are $8 for students and $12 for general admission