In PUSH PARTY and THE WELKIN, Off-Kilter Worlds Straining For Full Form — Review


Company of The Welkin | Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Joey Sims
No items found.
June 20, 2024 5:40 PM

Would a community room in Harlem have an incinerator? Probably not. So it’s deliberately disorienting move when Nia Akilah Robinson’s chaotic new play Push Party opens with a garbage can lighting up, ready to scorch the trash inside.

“God?” inquires Lelo, noticing the flames while setting up for a ‘push party’ (a celebration for a pregnant mother readying to give birth) in the rented room. She asks the incinerator again: “God is that you?”

Push Party could be a more successful, more cohesive piece if such hints at surreality were more consistently woven through the piece. Robinson’s messy play mostly sticks to naturalism, as longtime friends Lelo, Shadae, Wendy and Princess gather to celebrate and support Lovely, who has given birth prematurely to a child still under the hospital’s care. Tensions rise when an unhoused woman appears in the hallway, and the group is split on how best to help her. 

Much of the group’s infighting feels forced and unnatural — for instance, Shadae’s fury at Princess for giving a beggar candy instead of a more nutritious option. Robinson has a set of issues she’s looking to address, and concocts dubious interpersonal squabbles to fit them all in. Especially dubious is a late twist revealing an unexpected connection between Lelo and the mystery woman outside. 

The Company of push party | Photo: Travis Emery Hackett

These strange plot turns, and Robinson’s frequent penchant for didactic speeches, would be easier to swallow if Chesray Dolpha’s production leaned into unreality — a dramatic world just adjacent to our own. Robinson keeps nodding to this in the text, but Dolphra’s staging, presented by The Hearth at TheatreLab through June 23, doesn’t want to commit. 

Yet the evening is worthwhile just for its wrenching final section, in which the mothers all recall their own “pushing” experiences. One by one, they take turns recalling hours in the hospital, assorted medical complications and the many discomforts which mothers keep to themselves. Each monologue is honest, stirring and dryly witty, indicating a promising voice with great work still on the horizon. 


There’s something “off” about Sarah Benson’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s ambitious new play The Welkin, now at Atlantic Theater Company through July 7. The play is intriguing and structurally skilled, a timely drama which — like Push Party — effectively forefronts the frequently invisible, unacknowledged labor of women within a patriarchal society. 

But it is undone by Benson’s muddled approach, which embraces the play’s British-ness at times while pushing against it elsewhere, making for a tonally chaotic final result. 

Kirkwood’s play sets itself in rural Suffolk, on the Eastern edge of England, in 1759. A local girl is convicted of a brutal murder and sentenced to hanging. But when she claims to be pregnant, a jury of 12 women is pulled from their housework to judge whether the claim is truthful. 

In theory, the precise setting of The Welkin shouldn’t matter: Kirkwood is concerned with personhood in restrictive societies and the abuses suffered by pregnant women, not the specific social strata of mid 16th century East Anglia. (Her script even specifies that the play’s ensemble should “reflect the present day population of the place it is being performed.”) The play’s anachronistic oddities also suggest a non-literal approach is ideal.

But in Benson’s hands, the result is confused. Some cast members have strong English accents, while others make faltering attempts; a few, like Ann Harada and Dale Soules, barely even try. The broad comic mugging of Harada, Soules and Susannah Perkins clashes strangely with the production’s dominant tone of moody foreboding. And when a contemporary pop song intrudes on the action, Benson has not laid the groundwork for a leap into dreamy surreality. 

As with Robinson’s text for Push Party, those hints are certainly present in Kirkwood’s play. Neither of these intriguing works are intended for straightforward stagings. Both plays demand an oddness, a certain hallucinatory quality which neither Dolpha nor Benson ever quite hit upon.

No items found.
Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

No items found.