The husband gone to war, the wife struggling to run a farm by herself, the young, pregnant daughter unfit to be a mother — these stories have been told before. However, in Leegrid Stevens’ play “The Twelfth Labor,” these archetypal characters take on new personas to create a fresh outlook on wartime farm life.
Set in the 1940s, amid World War II and its aftermath, “The Twelfth Labor” mirrors the twelve labors of Hercules. Stevens adds a new spin on the classic tale by arguing that the twelfth and final labor remains elusive — he believes the human struggle never truly ends.
Following Stevens’ concept, “The Twelfth Labor” tells the story of Esther (Lynne McCollough), a stern and sour-faced mother fighting to hold down the family farm while her husband (Jed Dickson) is held as a prisoner of war in Japan. The play’s central conflict occurs as a result of the pregnancy of their mentally handicapped daughter, Cleo (Erin Treadway).
From the first moments after the lights dim, the minimalist, wooden set, reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” transforms into a clear representation of the family’s prairie home. Adelpha (Cynthia Babak), O’Meggie (Amy Bizjak) and Almittie (Michael Huston), the three gossiping women in town, instantly grasp the audience’s attention. The actors’ wittiness and dedication to their actions, especially those of Huston, act as elements of cohesion throughout the play.
As the dramatic focal point, Treadway fearlessly pursues the complications of her character, embodying Cleo’s series of dreams, fantasies and stories that morph into her one collective experience. Treadway so convincingly portrays the convulsions and abruptness of Cleo’s realities that one believes they are indeed very real. Her performance is ultimately only outshined by that of McCullough, who outstandingly channels Meryl Streep’s meaner, stronger character in the film adaptation of “August: Osage County.”
Despite limitations due to the theater’s small space and inability to accommodate a full curtain masking the stage, scene changes and entrances flow seamlessly and without trouble. However, there is often confusion about which locations represent the points of entrance — the boundaries of the house are often lost on the audience.
At the culmination of the play’s third act, Dickson gives a rousing, multi-minute monologue that never lags or becomes uninteresting. Grappling with vivid recollections of life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, Dickson’s emotion is so captivating that the play should have ended with the monologue. While the final act displays the best, most genuine acting in the entire play — it features a climactic mother/daughter struggle — its presence seems unnecessary for the overall flow.
As a result, what begins and develops as a beautifully executed and emotionally jarring plot becomes a somewhat convoluted, drawn-out performance. However, despite the play’s questionable length, gripping performances by McCollough and Hightower make the final act worth the wait.
By the play’s conclusion, Cleo clearly represents how humans take their own lives and gifts for granted, taking an overall somber ending and creating inspiration for living a better life. As she says in the show’s final scene, quoting Scarlett O’Hara’s character in “Gone with the Wind,” “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
“The Twelfth Labor” is playing at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St. through Oct. 11.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 7 print edition. Email Porter Yelton at [email protected]