Young Susanna Cox, a farm maid in the Oley Valley, was accused of killing her newborn child in 1809. This true story is filled with mystery, intrigue, and controversy, and the people of Berks County continue to tell the tale more than two hundred years later. One of those retellings of the story took on a fresh new shape at The Tea Factory last night, when Reading Theater Project debuted their original play, May Be Honest.
The performance begins with a verse from “The Ballad of Susanna Cox,” a song written soon after her hanging, whose popularity spread as far as Canada. Later verses move the story along, though most of the play centers around Susanna’s trial, with frequent “flashbacks” and side conversations. Much of the dialogue was taken directly from the courtroom records, which reveal a rather shaky foundation for the verdict. In the end, one is left wondering whether she was guilty or innocent, and the play emphasized this uncertainty by regularly interrupting the narrative and causing us to doubt our first impressions. Use of the Pennsylvania German dialect only adds to the confusion, just as it did in the historic events upon which the play is based.
One of the most striking interruptions comes in the entire second act, when audience members are asked to leave the main room and break into three groups, who are then guided to three different side rooms to see separate scenes. This shift highlights the fact that no one knows the whole story, including a hypothetical reconstruction of what may have actually happened.
Overall, May Be Honest is creative, well written, and relevant. The acting was excellent, and the artistic direction is what really made the play for me.
On a side note, I’ve never been in The Tea Factory before, but it seems like an interesting place and I hope for the chance to return soon.
Saturday, August 3rd’s showing is already sold out, but you can catch May Be Honest Sunday night, or next weekend, August 9-11, all at 8pm. A different guest speaker will lead a discussion of the history and themes each night after the show. Seating is limited, so buying advanced tickets here is recommended.
Reading Theater Project has been bringing challenging, original drama to our city since 2003.
The Tea Factory is a creative public workspace located in the historic Reading Hardware building at 580 Willow Street, perhaps better known as the other end of the building that houses Canal Street Pub.