Watermelon Hill at the History Theater

Emiy Gunyou Halaas, Adelin Phelps, Aeysha Kinnunenin Watermelon Hill.

Emiy Gunyou Halaas, Adelin Phelps, Aeysha Kinnunenin Watermelon Hill. Photo: Scott Pakudaitis.

Minnesota (and the rest of the country) has an uncomfortable history of mistreating unwed mothers. While unwed fathers have always been able to hide their status with relative ease, this proves near impossible for women. Bearing children is and always will be solely a female experience: a privilege and a burden.

Watermelon Hill, History Theater’s remounting of their 2001 adaptation of Linda Back McKay’s collection of locally-grown remembrances, playing through April 10, delves into the lives of three young women in 1965 who are forever changed by their unexpected pregnancies and subsequent stay at St. Paul’s now demolished Catholic Infant Home. The institution was a place for unmarried women to bring a baby to term in secrecy, all the while being reminded near constantly that they would have to give their children up to another family. This, ostensibly, so they could resume their normal lives, but carrying and giving birth to a child is not so easy to forget.

The History Theater’s production is wisely both written and directed by women, and it fittingly boasts distinctive femininity in its exploration of pregnancy and female companionship, focusing on the many fears and discomforts of pregnancy while also capturing the unique bonds between women sharing uncertainty and emotional confusion. These women seem to instinctively know that courage is best found in community, and their friendship is, ultimately, the heart of the show. Each portrait given feels fleshed and believable.

Yet, Lily Baber Coyle’s play is not a story of women overcoming odds, and it is never shy to lament the many ways these commendable attributes went unnoticed by a world inclined to judge. The show poignantly captures the injustice and heartbreak that comes when society attempts to sweep difficult topics, and those affected by them, under the rug.

Anya Kremenetsky’s direction is smartly simple, using a sparse set and allowing the show’s characters to stand in the forefront. Much of the lighting (by Kathy Maxwell) aptly isolates the performers, akin to movie close-ups, and allows individual emotion to be examined.

This simplicity works in no small part because each of the main performers offers rich depictions of their varied characters. Emily Gunyou Halaas stands out as Joan, offering both a tragic figure and comic relief with a sardonic, irreverent depiction of a woman teetering on the edge of hope. Aeysha Kinnunen as Leah provides a hopeful and determined picture of persistent optimism as well as overwhelming longing. Adelin Phelps’ Sharon captures youthful naivete and lost innocence with aplomb and provides a biting monologue looking back on her experience. Each character comes to life gradually, with layers patiently revealed through a variety of clever devices, from flashback, to dream, to fantasy.

In rare moments, the monologue-based storytelling does feel a bit too convenient for its purposes, and some dialogue feels too on the nose, but these are minor nitpicks in a show that on the whole can be quite moving. It’s not groundbreaking or artistically ambitious, but it’s a simple story, told well, with exceptional performances. If you or anyone you know has been touched by adoption, or even if you have not, this show will likely provide an enriching experience.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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