A historical work of theater can be problematic if there are not key dramatic moments to keep the audience engaged. This is the central issue with the world premiere of Seven Cousins for a Horse, playing at Thrown Stone Theatre in Ridgefield, CT. There is a lot of chatter and pontificating about social issues such as the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, but they are presented in a context that is unavailing and too matter-of-fact.
The show uses as a backdrop portrait painter Ammi Phillips’ 1848 visit to his cousin’s home in Colebrook, CT. He has agreed to paint seven portraits of the Kinney family in exchange for a new horse. He cajoles and pleads with members of the household to sit so he can complete his commission and return home to his wife. During these sessions playwright Tammy Ryan has conjured up backstories for each character. Unveiled are individual hopes, personal quandries, and descriptions of everyday life in mid-19th Century Connecticut. Ms. Ryan also incorporates dream sequences to augment the thoughts and experiences of the painter.
This all adds up to some interesting banter and views on work, home, and the aforementioned issues of the day. But the action comes across more as recitations with little excitation or tension. The show ambles along. In the end, with the job complete, the play quietly concludes.
Director Jonathan Winn looks to infuse energy into the production with busyness and artifice, but with little ardor and characters only mildly interesting, it is a tough task. His incorporation of Christopher Evans’ projections, at first, are confusing, but also do not fully achieve the dreamlike or flashback effect. The utilization of composer Aidan Meachem’s (who also plays Lucius Culver) agreeable incidental music adds charm to the production. Mr. Winn should have also evaluated the play’s confusing ending. Twice the audience applauded at blackouts thinking the show was over. The real ending could have easily been jettisoned.
The cast, outfitted in appropriate mid-19th century garbs from Costume Designer Brenda Phelps, and shuttling about in Scenic Designer Richard Harrison’s aptly appointed living room, seemed to be feeling their way around their characters. Some of the performers spoke too quickly and showed little emotion or nuance within their roles.
Seven Cousins for a Horse, playing through July 23 at Thrown Stone Theatre. Click here for dates, times and ticket information.