Review: 'Cloud 9' at Hartford Stage

Tara Kennedy 

OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“How do you reach Cloud 9?” asks Caryl Churchill’s 1979 work. If one is looking for that state of elation, Churchill’s play suggests that it may have a lot to do with gender identity, sexual nonconformity, and freedom from oppression. 

Caryl Churchill’s work is set in two different eras: British Colonial Africa during the Victorian era in Act I and London in 1979 in Act II. Although more than 100 years pass between these two dates, the actors behave as though only 25 years has passed, so some characters are meant to be the same person as was seen in Act I.  The playwright explains in the play’s introduction, “The first act, like the society it shows, is male-dominated and firmly structured. In the second act, more energy comes from the women and the gays,” implying that sexuality and gender roles become more freeform and flexible, at least in the open.

In Act I, the plot surrounds the life of a family and their desire for others, whether conventional or not. Clive (Mark H. Dold) wants Mrs. Saunders (Sarah Lemp), but also wants Betty (Tom Pecinka), but only as his caste, faithful wife. Betty wants Harry (Chandler Williams), while Harry seems to want, well, everyone, including the household servant, Joshua (William John Austin) and Clive’s young son, Edward (Mia Dillon), but eventually ends up with Edward’s governess, Ellen (also played by Sarah Lemp), who really wants Betty. And Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) just wants Betty, her daughter, to be happy. Oh yes, and Victoria, Clive and Betty’s daughter, is a ventriloquist’s dummy. Think Oscar Wilde turned up to 11.

In Act II, it is 25 years later in the lives of Betty, Victoria, and Edward, and the actors trade parts. Betty (Mia Dillon) has just left her husband. Her son, Edward (Tom Pecinka) is gay, but considers that maybe he is a lesbian, since he is fed up with men. Her daughter, Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) has a relationship with Martin (Chandler Williams) as well as a son, but is in a relationship with Lin (Sarah Lemp), who has a daughter, Cathy (Mark. H. Dold). 

And, no, I did not mix up actors. Men are playing women and women are playing men. And it works wonderfully.

Churchill’s writing demonstrates masculinity and femininity as a social construct rather than being tied to biological sex: we see Betty, being performed by a man, with a remarkable carriage, exhibiting characteristics we associate with being a Victorian woman; we see young Edward, being performed by a woman, with amazing vivacity, showing qualities of a young boy. Beyond gender, she also casts cross-race (a white man plays an African character) and cross-age (older actors play younger characters) in additional ways to upset our expectations as an audience. This is all done convincingly and honestly, and that is what makes this work without it being straight-up farce. Farcical conventions are used, especially in Act I, but it doesn’t detract from the sincerity of the characters (when the characters are meant to be sincere, of course).   

I think the credit here goes to the excellent direction by Elizabeth Williamson and the performers for bringing this piece to its audience with truth and depth. The actors were all marvelous in each of their roles. Going from a highly-stylized form of theatre to a realistic one takes tremendous skill and these 7 performers do an excellent job. I was especially impressed with Mia Dillon’s embodiment of Edward and the elder Betty; her Act II monologue was powerfully moving as the displaced housewife discovering her personhood while her young Edward displayed perfect youthful exuberance and petulance. Emily Gunyou Halaas’ ability to go from the staunch, highly stylized Maud to the authentic Victoria is impressive. I adored Mr. Pecinka’s fantastic portrayal of the angel in the house, Betty, and his warm adult Edward. 

Music also plays a significant role in this show, especially fitting in Act I with the beautiful set design by Nick Vaughan. His music hall setting – complete with small stage, footlights, and painted backdrops – and the musical numbers for the Victorian portion of the show gave the perfect feel of the show-within-a-show. While the music hall theme played a strong role in Act I, I found the addition of the “Cloud 9” song that appeared 2/3 of the way through Act II disruptive; if the only reason to insert this song was to throw in the title, Churchill should’ve thought of a different title. In other words, it was not needed. 

I was taken aback at the number of people who left at intermission: don’t people want to see how Act II ties in? And if I was surprised by the number of walk-outs in this production in 2017, I can’t even imagine what kind of ruckus it created in London in 1979. When it came to off-Broadway New York in 1981 (directed by Tommy Tune), Frank Rich of the New York Times didn’t think much of the subject matter; Rich titled his review, “Sexual Confusion on Cloud 9,” and deemed the work a “carnal circus.” Obviously, Rich misunderstood the statement of the play, but in 1981, it is easy to understand how. The idea of gender fluidity was something seen on a David Bowie record album cover, not something that was everyday life. Recent reviews of revivals, such as the revival at the Atlantic in 2015, point this out: Ben Brantley of the New York Times nails it with the succinct phrase, “1979 feels not like yesterday but today.” Churchill was a playwright before her time, apparently. 

Photo: T. Charles Erickson