The Hub Theatre’s Abominable Sheds Light on the Beast Within
The Hub Theatre’s Abominable, written by Hub co-founder and artistic director Helen Pafumi, is a lyrical and spine-tingling examination of violence. At the core of the play is bullying; but by incorporating in the story an elusive and wild beast of legend (something like the Abominable Snowman), Pafumi moves beyond the high-school dynamics of cruelty at the play’s center and touches on the larger issue of violence in us all.
The Hub, an award-winning theater in the Washington, DC suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, has produced at least five world premieres in its six-year history and has become known for its willingness to successfully take risks. With Abominable—another world premiere—the Hub adds to its record of success.
At the core of the play is bullying; but by incorporating in the story an elusive and wild beast of legend, Pafumi moves touches on the larger issue of violence in us all.
In an opening monologue, Primavera—a sassy and endearing Latina woman—speculates on the nature of a beast whose footprints have begun appearing in the woods around town. According to her grandmother, who saw the beast before dying, the creature doesn’t want to know the pain and joy of becoming a person; it doesn’t want to be found. Primavera’s grandmother leaves Hershey’s kisses for the beast—she pities it for having nothing to love and therefore nothing to miss.
Jacob, a high school student, wants to find the beast. His close friends, Sam and Esther, are not as eager to miss school or take time away from homework to hunt it down. Jacob, feeling betrayed and abandoned by his friends, while also having unspecified problems at home, begins to lash out at Sam, a kind and polite young man who is mystified by his friend’s behavior. As the beast’s footprints come closer and closer to their homes, Jacob becomes more violent, leaving threatening notes for Sam, attacking and beating him. When Esther confronts Jacob, he hits her so hard that she is knocked unconscious.
The concept may sound difficult to execute gracefully; such a direct metaphorical correspondence between the violent impulses inside us and an unseen, footprint-leaving beast might invite heavy handedness. But the quality of Pafumi’s writing and Kirsten Kelly’s excellent direction make the play effective. The language, especially as Primavera articulates it, is philosophical, lyrical, and funny in a surprising, offbeat way. Kristen Morgan’s set—a series of birch trees skillfully hung from the ceiling, along with a few wood chairs and a table—creates a soft, magical atmosphere that is complemented by Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design. The music, characterized by soft chimes and trills, is broken up with alarm sirens and the hair-raising growls of the beast, which sound a bit like a lion’s roars. The lighting, by Elizabeth Coco, helps establish the dual reality of the play’s world—the mundane environments of home and the schoolyard, juxtaposed with the mystical possibilities of the forest. As the play opens, the soft, dappled light suggests a magical environment where anything can happen. The well-planned production elements and the mythical dimensions of the story effectively ward off any After-School Special flavor that could have bedeviled the play, given its focus on teenagers and conflict.
Carla Briscoe’s Primavera is charming and intriguing. William Vaughan plays a frightening and sadistic Jacob. Chris Stinson is convincing as the lovely but troubled Sam, whose bones are growing so fast they cause him physical pain. Maggie Erwin is a believable teenaged Esther, and Liz Osborn rounds out the character of Sam’s mother nicely. Sasha Olinick has a tough role in playing Ulysses, a bumbling though kind detective. His character doesn’t have quite as many dimensions as the others, but he does a fine job.
Abominable is an affecting, thought-provoking play well suited to this moment in time, when news of hundreds of children’s deaths in Gaza fills the airwaves, along with police brutality stateside, and the last school year marked by numerous shootings nationwide. The beast, says Primavera, is within us, as well as without. “My grandmother,” she says, “forgot to tell me that.” She knows the beast and acknowledges him, which may be all that any of us can do. She continues to leave him kisses.