Review: “The Vineyard” is an ambitious, if flawed, mix of science fiction and spirituality

I’m particularly excited to present this new blog-only review of The Vineyard, the latest production from the Heartland Theatre Collective. Heartland is a relatively young company—this is only their third production in as many years, following late 2016’s Dust and last year’s Little Bird—but they’ve made a name for themselves creating powerful, nuanced plays that explore the stories and lives of Texas women.

The Vineyard comes from the same creative team and co-producers as the prior two Heartland shows—playwright Nicole Oglesby, director Marian Kansas, and dramaturg Katy Matz—and feels like the continuation of an arc that began with the sometimes brutal realism of Dust and continued into the ghostly magical realism of Little Bird. In The Vineyard, even though Kansas maintains a generally realistic presentation, Oglesby has moved further into the realm of the metaphysical with a story that takes on the dimensions of both science fiction and ethereal spirituality.

The titular vineyard, we learn very soon into the play, is the home to a transhumanist group—that might be a cult—of “bio-hackers” who are altering their bodies and DNA to become something more than human. We discover the group through the eyes of newcomer Joan, played by a very grounded Rosalind Faires, who quickly finds herself enmeshed in the lives (and loves) of the group. The members include Georgia (the very sardonic Brooke Ashley Eden), a cynic who refuses to be experimented on, and the over-eager, PTSD-suffering Leo, portrayed with simple sweetness by Brennan Patrick.

At the heart of the group, though, is the duo of Kevin, the scientist performing all of the experiments, and Susanna, the ultimate realization of the manic pixie dream girl (complete with her own surgically added, possibly functional wings). Whereas Kevin is driven by the science fiction-inspired quest to alter the human body to survive a changing climate via his transhumanist treatments, Susanna burns with a kind of new age spiritualism that leads her to believe she is—or is at least becoming—an actual angel.

The two are perfectly embodied by the angsty nerdiness of Will Gibson Douglas as Kevin, and the whimsy-mixed-with-danger of Khali McDuff-Sykes’ Susanna. The arc that McDuff-Sykes takes, moving from the manic pixie of the play’s early scenes to an increasingly disillusioned, embittered monster of the id, is in fact the standout performance of the play.

The tension at the heart of The Vineyard, then, is not so much the more sensational aspects of body transformation and cult behavior, but rather the conflict between Kevin’s biological perspective and Susanna’s emotional psychology. Though this is a truly ambitious subject, unfortunately the play doesn’t quite pull it off. The science fiction concepts are thrown off a bit too easily, and many of the spiritual questions ignore those ideas when they could probe greater emotional and philosophical quandaries by diving deeper into the strange reality of the play’s world.

The concepts that The Vineyard undertake are ambitious and intriguing, but the play itself does not ultimately explore them in a fully engaging manner, as it relies on high-level philosophical musings rather than the specifics of these particular characters. Nonetheless, it is a thoroughly accomplished production with solid performances that leaves me eager to see what’s next from the Heartland Theatre Collective.

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