Silverhilltakes familiar questions of love and money back in time.
Great new plays are rare—all the more reason to celebrate Philadelphia playwright Thomas Gibbons’ new work Silverhill, which is making its world premiere in an effectively straightforward production by InterAct Theatre Company.
On paper, the plot doesn’t exactly make you want to rush to the theater: A utopian Christian community built on communal wealth-sharing is threatened when younger members wish to adopt a capitalist economic system. But don’t let it put you off.
The story takes place during the late summer of 1891 on the grounds of Silverhill, a 247-population, self-supporting Christian community. Silverhill is loosely based on the 19th-century Oneida community, whose blend of communalism and nonstandard sexual mores continues to perk up bored teenagers studying American history to this day. The residents of Silverhill tend their orchards and gardens in upstate New York, avoiding contact with the outside world. In director Seth Rozin’s production, residents are depicted doing chores so cheerily that it’s hard not to think of Disney’s dwarves, whistling while they work.
The group’s apparent happiness derives from what the community’s leader Alden (Christopher Coucill) and an interpretation of scripture he terms “Bible Communism—” a belief that everything belongs to God, so claims of ownership are heretical.
The only member who ventures beyond the compound’s entrance is a young man named Frank (the reliable Dan Hodge), the community’s designated salesman. His clients are buyers at large department stores in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, who carry the beautiful tablecloths Silverhill’s women weave on the community loom—one of the many shared jobs that feed and support the all the members of this small society. Alden considers this outside contact perilous, an opening for the temptations of the outside world, and his concerns are well-founded.
Impressed with New York and the near-infinite goods and services available in a capitalist system, Frank proposes that Silverhill increase their production and profits and abandon their communal way of life. The ensuing conflict between Frank and Alden sets up a debate between diametrically opposed economic systems—but what ultimately leads to blows is a woman.
And that leads us to the part that gets many American history students through the doldrums of the late 1800s. Silverhill, like Oneida, practices “complex marriage,” an extension of the “what's mine is yours” ethos. Members don’t just share food, money and materials—they’re also expected to share their bodies with any and all community members of the opposite sex.
So when Frank and Tirzah (Jessica DalCanton) aren’t in the mood to share their love, they’re going against all tradition. It doesn’t go over well with Alden, who for the past year has ignored his wife Kate (a quietly suffering Nancy Boykin) to sleep exclusively with the much-younger and not entirely willing Tirzah. “How can a feeling that comes so naturally not be from God?” Frank asks, words that these days tend to come out of the mouths of gay-marriage advocates spoken by someone who just wants what is now the American standard one-man-one-woman deal.
In Coucill’s portrayal, Alden isn’t a fiery, charismatic leader with soaring rhetoric. The other members are attracted by his conviction, and his unwavering certainty that God speaks directly to him. The quietly effective performance is appropriately sincere, and we can easily understand why the elder members of the group are unquestioning in their allegiance to him.
Hodge’s Frank doesn’t have the same sense of spiritual conviction that Coucill brings to Alden, but he makes up for it with ambition and salesmanship. Frank takes three younger members of Silverhill in a game of shopping; it's the first time they've seen currency. Seductively, Hodge rubs a dollar bill between his fingers and proclaims, “It feels like America.”
In America, monogamy is regarded as the standard of success in marriage, and wealth as the standard of success in life. In Silverhill, Gibbons asks us to examine these beliefs. Is the American dream of home and family a worthy pursuit? Is monogamy ownership? Do we favor possession over the common good? If you like a play that prompts questions rather than providing answers, Silverhill leaves you with plenty of food for thought.
Through Nov. 14.
2030 Sansom St.
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