Working in an onstage dirt patch, ‘Fen’ cast faces hardships and horrors in stellar production

Court Theatre goes for realism, then metaphor, in a rarely revived Caryl Churchill play worth unearthing.

SHARE Working in an onstage dirt patch, ‘Fen’ cast faces hardships and horrors in stellar production

Genevieve VenJohnson, Elizabeth Laidlaw and Lizzie Bourne play a few of the women who sit in the dirt and dig out potatoes in Caryl Churchill’s “Fen.”

Michael Brosilow

The eminent British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1983 play “Fen” is receiving an extremely rare and impressive revival at the Court Theatre.

It’s a bit of a surprising programming choice. Churchill, now in her mid-80s and a perennial name on lists of potential Nobel recipients, has written plays more accessible to an American audience. “Cloud 9” is likely her most famous one, a humorously stylized, gender-bending take on colonialism. But there are others too, such as “Serious Money,” her evocative verse play about Wall Street (or, rather, the City of London), and I wonder if “Mad Forest,” about the Romanian revolution, might still have a lot to tell us.

But despite being an obvious challenge due to its social specificity and overt socialism, “Fen” proves genuinely worthy of unearthing. Thanks to a stellar production from Vanessa Stalling, directing a crazy-good cast, this 40-year-old play comes across as strikingly contemporary in its aesthetics and surprisingly relatable in its milieu.



When: Through March 5

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.

Tickets: $40.50-$82


Running time: 1 hours and 40 minutes with no intermission

The setting is extremely precise. The Fens refers to a geographic area in the east of England, where the marshy soil has provided fertile farmland, along with centuries of labor disputes between workers and owners or their intermediaries. The evolution towards corporate vertical integration — this is the Thatcher era, after all — means that it’s not always clear who even owns the land.

“Fen” follows a group of women who work the soil by hand, just like generations before them. They sit in the dirt — which covers the entire front part of the stage, probably half-a-foot deep — and dig out potatoes. They don’t get paid much and are treated like … dirt. They all know each other’s secrets in this fishbowl of a community. Sometimes they support each other. Other times they judge, often harshly.

The play proceeds in a series of short scenes, with a cast of five women and one man, the ensemble portraying some 20 characters ranging from children to the elderly. We go inside the characters’ homes, depicted mostly with just tables and chairs or stools or a prop like an ironing board standing on the dirt. And yet, except for the more stylized kid characters, the playing is realistic. In one scene, we even get a full-sized tractor. But as the play goes on, the supernatural starts to intrude.

By the time the 100-minute “Fen” was over, the most surprising comparisons that sprsng to my mind were the very current high-art horror films “Hereditary” and “Midsommer,” from director Ari Aster.

As in those tales, Churchill’s characters are put through the wringer; they suffer severely. There’s extreme emotional cruelty in the form of Angela (Morgan Lavenstein), so abusive to her stepdaughter Becky (Lizzie Bourne). There are dashes of more gothic horror, particularly when gender non-conforming troublemaker Nell (Elizabeth Laidlaw) spins a yarn about her grandfather witnessing a murder.


Val (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel) leaves her husband and children for fellow laborer Frank (Alex Goodrich).

Michael Brosilow

And at the storytelling core, there’s the painful story of Val (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), who leaves her husband and children after falling in love with fellow laborer Frank (Alex Goodrich). But in the separation from her children, her misery, and Frank’s, only seem to grow. Val has to choose between Frank and her kids (Genevieve VenJohnson and Lavenstein again). She can’t imagine surviving without either.

And there’s always that dirt, which starts out as an element of hyper-reality and then becomes more and more metaphorical. In “Fen,” Churchill reaches deep down into the community’s psyche, digging out the dreams and dark desires and intense frustrations that lie underneath, until the surface reality can no longer hold.

The play operates on so many levels — the sociopolitical, the psychological, the supernatural and, most of all, the theatrical.

It’s clear that Stalling was concerned about the audience being able to follow so many characters played by the same cast members. But between set designer Collette Pollard’s helpful projections of the names onto the cement-ish, prison-like back wall, costume designer Izumi Inaba’s expertly unobtrusive accessories and hair changes, and a focus from this fine ensemble on character physicality, the production provides plenty of clarity and nuance.

There is a weakness here, though. Stalling gets the chilliness, the emotional distance in the way people interrelate. But the Val-Frank scenes need to provide more contrast to that, to help us experience an intensity of connection that serves as the catalyst, the root if you will, of an explosive end.

Still, though, this is a show that takes you to — and underneath — a different time and place.

The Latest
Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2022 spoke before state Democratic Party leaders in New Hampshire and Florida, fueling speculation that he was plotting a presidential run in 2024. Since then he’s repeatedly tamped down questions about his presidential ambitions.
A celebration around Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area’s 75th anniversary and Chicago Yacht Club’s In-Water Boat & Tech Show are Go & Show this week.
Surprising flavor combinations — think gravy-flavored Jones Soda or Sour Patch Kids Oreos — are showing up more frequently in grocery stores and restaurant chains.
Two men were found in a soccer field suffering from gunshot wounds at La Villita Park in the 2800 block of South Sacramento Avenue.
Yellow Banana is far from living up to its vow to get rid of the food deserts in some West and South Side neighborhoods.