Mary Toumanen's whimsical, ethereal, lovely Peaceable Kingdom marks the fifth of seven premieres from the Orbiter 3 playwrights’ collective. Her title comes from a series by Philadelphia painter Edward Hicks (1780-1849) and includes beautifully sung excerpts from Randall Thompson's oratorio The Peaceable Kingdom.
Director Rebecca Wright's production has a handmade quality that echoes the paintings, from set designer Apollo Mark Weaver's tall fabric trees, platforms, and upstage drop to Rebecca Kanach's animal costumes, crafted to capture the essence of lion, leopard, and lambs while allowing each actor's full expression. Even the eight-person ensemble and their conductor, Justin Yoder, are dressed as abstract trees. It's all crafted to fit the Christ Church Neighborhood House's fourth-floor theater, where lighting designer Maria Shaplin boldly leaves windows unshaded, using each evening's fading sunlight to augment forest colors and shadows in the brick-walled space.
Peaceable Kingdom imagines William Penn's arrival in the region that would someday bear his name, which Quakers imagined could be a natural paradise on Earth. Alexandra King plays the well-meaning Penn, but Tuomanen's script sympathizes more with sardonic Native American chief Tamanend (Carla-Rae), who's understandably perplexed when Penn gushes, "I look at you and I see grace," but doesn't understand basic social principles. "They have neurotic impulses," Tamanend says about the newcomers who, when passed a pipe to smoke, assume it's been gifted to them to keep.
The forest animals likewise express confusion about the awed Quakers. "They put the same plants in rows," complains Invasive, a gray squirrel (John Jarboe), to Native, a red squirrel (Thomas Choinacky). "It's ridiculous. This is no way to live."
Abstract style, concrete issues
Animal conversations are human, and often humorous. Stephanie N. Walters and Eliana Fabiyi play lambs. The former enjoys a sensuous life, exclaiming about the simple joys of jumping, falling, and "sticking my butt in the air, with the wind on my poophole." The other is, understandably, more anxious about their survival and purpose. Leopard (Chris Davis) can't help but imagine making meals of the lambs and a goat, Kid (Daniel Park). Cathy Simpson as wordless Lion presides over all, the apex predator keeping everyone else in line. Scenes have an abstract quality not only because of the animal characters' human concerns, but because all speak straight out to the audience, not facing each other, giving the 80-minute play a fable-like tone augmented by the cast-created drum and rattle accompaniment. The choir's contributions, meanwhile, take the sometimes-silly discussions, full of innuendo and wit, to a more spiritual plane, gently assisted by the setting sun.
Peaceable Kingdom's most powerful themes are shown, not discussed: The inevitable (and still occurring) destruction of this natural (but not peaceful) paradise by invasive humans looms over all, as clueless Penn admires native balance while unknowingly planning its demise. What sometimes feels like a rambling and indulgent work slyly adds up to something profoundly beautiful and meaningful, albeit a melancholy warning. Wright's assured direction of this resourceful cast reveals Tuomanen as a playwright of subtle vision and skill.