Two no-nonsense prairie sisters, a prized pick-up truck, and one hell of an indestructible sheep: the combined efforts of playwright Brian Watkins and the two actresses, Katherine Folk-Sullivan and Layla Khoshnoudi in My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer, evoke the friction of isolated country life, the open plains only exacerbating the claustrophobia.
The first half of the play is mostly exposition, as we acquaint ourselves with sisters Sarah and Hannah. Sarah finds herself relegated to being the caregiver to their ailing mother and their irritating ten-year-old sheep, Vicky. She bemoans the amount of chores to be done, and dreams of being able to afford tuition someday, but mostly chalks the lack of it up to the price of country life, choking down her resentment. Meanwhile, Hannah grows increasingly stifled as a waitress at a rest stop, forced to make small talk with flirtatious commuters, and dreaming of the day she inherits the mint condition 1985 Ford pick-up truck their absent father left.
The two sisters take turns speaking in monologues as they recount the nature of their lives in a simple country jargon. It’s a memory play, where the only two present characters speak in an almost monotone twang, thereby accentuating the eeriness of the story. Their stoic stances and calm voices, when offset with the gothic nature of the play’s events, are at times downright disturbing. The bitterness of the sisters builds in the second half of the play into a ticking time bomb, before exploding onto an unwitting third character (though not the one we were expecting).
Watkins’ play is a demonstration of the art of storytelling, a return to the art-form in its most simplistic version, something that enraptured us as children but which we forgot to respond to over the years. Watkins successfully recreates the round-the-campfire spookiness that comes from simply listening to the words of a sordid tale. There is no embellishment, no reenactment of the events – in fact, very little is done by the two actresses to materialize the events in front of us, other than just a very simple verbal recount of what transpired (and some well-crafted sound design). It’s reminiscent of a therapy session – the story is therefor us, the audience, and no one else. The two sisters never speak to each other, let alone look at each other, as they take turns recounting the events that will forever remain seared in their brains, and subsequently, ours.
Such a tactic could easily falter and become tiresome and dull, but never does the play take a dip towards the tedious, thanks to the talents of the playwright and the actresses. Clearly extensive text work and character study was done in order for the two actresses to have clear understandings on their characters, not only in their sisterly similarities, but also in what makes them differ, and therefore, what made them estranged. Folk-Sullivan and Khoshnoudi’s choices are crystal-clear and entrancing in an otherwise haunting and dark piece.
As the play takes a turn for the grotesque, and then abruptly ends without a true resolution, we get afforded a strong sense of the purgatory in which the two sisters are trapped. But with the exception of some interesting but perhaps unnecessary scrim-work at the play’s beginning, there is very little physical action throughout the play. In fact, whenever there is physical action, it comes across as a bit disjointed in its attempt to be meaningful (I could have done without the two sisters smearing ash on their clavicles). The only blocking that truly advanced the portentous nature of this ghost story is when a sister slowly and silently stacks a set of logs on top of one another to build a pyre. It seems unnecessarily cryptic at first, but once its relevance to the story becomes clear, it becomes almost biblical in its significance.
My Daughter Keeps Our Hammer is a chilling experience, scary in its simplicity, and the title is demonstrative of how someone so seemingly innocent can be so dangerous. After all, if someone has spent years festering animosity and indignation, the last thing you want to do is hand them a weapon.