New Jersey Repertory Company's The Seedbed is a difficult play to write about. This is not necessarily because of its subject matter – which many of its Long Branch, New Jersey audience members certainly find objectionable – but, instead, because of the way the subject matter is presented.
Directed by SuzAnne Barabas, the family drama, set in an apparently comfortable home in Ireland (an ominous stage setting if there ever were one), is composed of two distinctly different acts. The first builds steadily – with infrequent hints – to an alarming and disconcerting climax. The second act attempts to maintain the exaggerated tension built in the first for nearly every one of its moments – a difficult and generally unsuccessful venture.
Incest is the elephant in the room, and while some audience members might detect it early on, playwright Bryan Delaney makes a point of delaying the disclosure of this mammoth until nearly an hour into The Seedbed. In a retrospective way, this acts as a sort of symbolism about how the creeping silence about an unspoken truth can simmer only so long before spilling out. (The Irish repression is strong with this one.) But the lack of full disclosure can come to feel like a cheap device – especially when Kevin Hogan’s bizarre, incriminating tirade as the patriarch Thomas is satisfying not just narratively, but also in the sheer quality of his performance in that moment. Hogan manages to conjure the rare audience reaction of a laugh through a cringe.
In fact, much of the acting is powerful. Gina Costigan plays Hannah, Thomas’s wife, with an inborn gentleness that might cloud her ability to act in her own best interest. And Cathryn Wake plays their eighteen-year-old daughter Maggie, whose confusion and resentment are tangible throughout the course of the performance.
The best part about this production, though, is its treatment of the subject matter. What appears to be true changes throughout the sometimes exhausting second act. At first glance, this might appear as another easy trick: keep them guessing, keep them focused. But by its close, it becomes clear that The Seedbed is not interested in comfortable truths or moral binaries. In its best moments, this play discomforts us not simply because its material can be difficult to contend with, but because it makes us question our collective impulses to villainize the familiar villains and forgive those who we prejudge as innocent.