Thicker than blood, longer than birth: Mother and Other in Karen Hartman’s Girl Under Grain
Here are some things I began to believe:
Work is thicker than blood.
Years are longer than birth.
And you can find another mother.
Karen Hartman designates Girl Under Grain a “dust bowl love story” inspired by the Book of Ruth. Beautifully written, incandescent and unflinching, it begins with a lone voice counting the lessons of her life: belief, work, years, and rebirth in the wake of loss. You can find another mother. You can transcend your circumstances.
The puzzle of the play begins. The Book of Ruth tells the story of Naomi, who is left without kin when her sons die. Her daughter-in-law, the Moabite Ruth, cleaves to her and accompanies Naomi back to her home with a pledge of fealty:
“…whither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.” (Ruth 1:14-16)
On the one hand Ms. Hartman delivers a provocative contribution to midrash; she reads between the lines of the Book of Ruth. The play becomes part of a tradition of commentary and interpretation in which the reader contemplates the text, fleshes out the events, and asks questions to uncover what lies beneath. But by merging the biblical journey with the dust bowl migration, Hartman not only breathes life into an ancient text, but also spins a wrenching, original American story of love found, lost, and found again. She poses questions: What if Ruth’s supposed selflessness actually masked erotic desire? What if the older woman, Sugar (Naomi), returned this love? What if this passion, and not a baby, was the older woman’s late life miracle? What if this love between abandoned women occurred in a time of catastrophic hardship where a woman’s only chance to survive was to find a man to take her in? How would this story end?
Ruth is the rogue element in both Girl Under Grain and the Bible. Ruth enters a world where she does not belong and changes it. In the Bible, Ruth is absorbed into the tradition, becoming the first convert to Judaism. She gives birth to Obed, the grandfather of King David. In Hartman’s world, it is the road, and not Boone’s (Boaz’s) farm, where Ruth and Sugar are the closest. As in King Lear, the great wilderness is the only place these women’s souls are free. Each woman leaps away from everything she has known life to be. And the tension Hartman creates around how differently the women behave when they arrive at Boone’s farm and become subject to societal conventions is the awful motor of the action.
When I directed Girl Under Grain, I was stunned by the contrasting journeys of Hartman’s three nomadic women, Ruth, Sugar, and Orpah. Hartman is not interested in documenting what women’s lives actually were like in the dust bowl, but rather in exposing the choices women are forced to make in order to survive. We are asked to witness, not to take sides. Hartman is interested in how circumstance and intention make us who we are. What we do to insure our physical survival often comes at untenable psychic expense. Sugar, now in her 50’s, employs wisdom, charm, and wariness to hold a hostile world at bay. Ruth, who lost her mother at an early age, is tough and eager to take care of others, sometimes at her own expense. Orpah, the youngest, is a self-styled princess on a pea. She trades on her looks to get where she wants to go. These choices are ferociously important to Hartman; they can lead to love, loss, triumph, shame, or most likely, some alloy thereof.
Girl Under Grain is brilliantly structured. Hartman creates her own spare language with words as plain and lonely as the objects in a Walker Evans WPA photo. The play begins in the midst of catastrophe—three women trudging down a dusty road after their men and car have disappeared. Ruth chooses to stick with her mother-in-law, and soon after Sugar goes blind. Ruth’s devotion is expressed through small things—carving a stick so Sugar can walk with dignity, giving Sugar all of the coffee, washing Sugar’s hair. The dazzling contrast between the two women in this intergenerational love story renders it even more believable, tragicomic, and moving. Crustiness is answered with compassion: I don’t like you, Ruth, Sugar says. Ruth responds: I’ll stick.
The miracle Hartman embeds in Girl Under Grain is simply this: love is sudden, powerful, and can transform you. A sensuous passion blossoms between unlikely partners on the road between sea and farm, between present and the past. Hartman creates a wide world where no one sees; it is here the women can share who they are and see each other. Consider the exchange below:
Head bent. Eyes blank. Skin slack. Tits gray. Feet full of pus.
I imagine I can touch you.
Well. That’s something. To love a broken person. That’s kind.
You are the most beautiful part of my eye.
The dustbowl evokes both the baleful event in American history, and Sugar’s pelvis, her lost fertility. Ruth seeks in Sugar the mother she’s lost. She apes Sugar’s stoic traditions and studies Sugar’s confidence and heartfelt prayer. Sugar sees in Ruth the fertility she can bring to Boone, the child that will redeem her losses and bring Sugar back into her inheritance.
Karen Hartman has said that in her plays she likes to place private moments in public so that people don’t feel so alone. Girl Under Grain is a play of highly intimate moments counterpointed by songs. We see a woman go blind; hear a declaration of animal attraction; watch two women lie down to make love; eavesdrop on a hitchhiker singing in the back of a truck; listen to Boone on his porch proclaim his power to the wide world; witness a seduction and a consummation on the threshing floor; hear the screams of Ruth laboring to give birth, alone; see an dried up old woman nurse a newborn; observe a strip tease artist being humiliated by a stage hand; and finally watch Ruth, in sailor whites, walk into the sea. Girl Under Grain multiplies the private moments until they outweigh the public ones. And when Ruth reclaims her life, when she has given birth and realizes than Sugar will never let Ruth love her the way she did on the road, she picks up her bag to go and says about her baby:
I don’t want to know his name. Don’t tell him mine.
Keep him warm. Keep him safe. If that’s possible.
Tell him, you are a child of desire. You better watch what you want.
In performance the sequence of scenes on the farm reaches Artaudian cruelty. Sugar’s repeated fearful denials of Ruth, Ruth and Boone’s devouring each other in the barn, and Sugar and Boone singing songs while Ruth’s ragged birthing screams emerge from the house are excruciating to witness. The audience feels complicit, engaged in the cruelty of repression, and subtly but viscerally Hartman makes her point. How could such a rare love be so quickly abandoned? Why are we afraid of our erotic desires? What does it mean to be foreign? To be other? To be, as Ruth puts it in the final line of the play, “something else?”
I would be remiss to close without saluting the producers, designers, and actors who helped bring Girl Under Grain into the world. Roger Danforth at the Drama League gave us a berth in the 1998 New Directors/New Works program, and then presented us in the New York International Fringe Festival in August 2000. Girl Under Grain won “Best Drama” in the festival. Antonio Sacre, in Theatre Reviews Limited, observed, “Complicated, poetic and beautiful, the writing and acting are thrilling to watch. Soules is some kind of wonderful, a salt of the earth, powerful woman who finds humor and pain in seemingly every phrase….And Kempson more than holds her own with her; she manages to slide into the many complexities of the dialogue with the ease of a stream gently eroding away a river bank…” I would like to thank Mike Hodge, Nina Landey, Mandy Fox, and Kristin DiSpaltro for their equally stunning work, and P73 Productions for extending the Fringe run. Matthew Adelson created evocative lighting. Aaron Hartman and Kim Sherman made the songs sing; Tim Cusak writing for NYTheatre.com noted, “I want a recording of Aaron Hartman’s songs for the next time my heart gets broken.” Geoff Zink designed the sound around early twentieth century slide guitar riffs. More than anything I remember how actors and designers created richness out of spareness, just as Ruth and Sugar and their Biblical forebears had done before them.
New York City, 2009