Evelyn Brown (A Diary) is an oddity in the María Irene Fornés canon: It’s her only play that derives entirely from found text–the 1909 diary of a New Hampshire domestic servant. The script was lost after the play’s 1980 premiere, and has been reconstructed here, several years after Fornés’s death, by dramaturg Gwendolyn Alker from script fragments and interviews with the original cast and crew–a task made even more complex by the fact that it’s almost a work of dance theater, with long wordless sequences and its movement containing (and concealing, but we’ll get to that) as much of its meaning as the text. (Two designers from the original production, set designer Donald Eastman and costume designer Gabriel Berry, also return to this production.) And it’s a play whose language and overt action take place almost entirely on the surface–there’s no emotions, no thoughts, and almost no subtext here.
Evelyn Brown’s diary is a flat recounting of events that occurred between January and April: The weather (more variable than one might expect of a New Hampshire winter). The chores Evelyn completed. Her journeys around the small community. The names of the correspondents with whom she exchanged letters. (The contents of the letters themselves don’t make it into the diary.) The names of friends or neighbors or relatives who visited the families for whom she worked. The names of those in the community who died. The richest detail comes with the recounting of a recipe for potato bread. The recitation of the entries is split between two performers, Ellen Lauren (Evelyn) and Violeta Picayo (Evelyn Brown), but they don’t talk to each other and only interact when performing a task together.
We don’t know if the four-month section of diary dramatized here is all that survived, or if Fornés zeroed in on this excerpt for a reason, but either way, we are dropped in the middle of the narrative, with no vantage point from which to derive a larger sense of the community or the people who populate it. We know that Evelyn moves from working for one family to working for another, but we don’t know why, exactly. (The second family seems to need help with a baby.)
You get very few of the hooks of traditional theater or even traditional dance from Evelyn Brown, in other words: no narrative, no interplay of characters, no emotional engagement, no virtuosity of movement. Donald Eastman’s raw-wood set of many doors gives the impression of being the center of a large house, but all we see in the corridors and rooms is more empty space. There’s no conventional way in; you have to almost disengage your expectations and let your mind wander through it in a meditative way. There is something of Merce Cunningham’s work about the piece–the intentional stripping away of the things that we think of as interesting or foundational to an art form, to see what’s left.
Director Alice Reagan has Lauren and Picayo reciting and moving with crisp precision but without much affect; even the deaths are noted with the same brisk single sentence allotted to other events. The movement has the same measured, affectless rigor; we see them performing ritual steps but rarely feel any motivation behind them. Which perhaps is the point–Evelyn lives a life where she does what she’s asked to do, without much choice or motivation. She might feel anger at her fate and take that out on kneading bread, or she might be content, and her kneading is an exercise in a job well done: we are prevented from knowing. There’s an active, purposeful refusal to give the audience access to Evelyn’s interior life, which abstracts her into opacity, and yet the details are too specific for her to be an archetype.
At times, it feels almost like Fornés has taken an intense magnifying lens to a small square of a surface as neutral as plain cloth or wood: a texturelessness zoomed in on so intently that patterns and textures emerge. The mind yearns to make meaning of it, but I think that search for meaning might in the end be a mistake–or at least, I don’t think there’s something buried to be found. (For what it’s worth, my theater companion and I found diametrically opposed meanings in certain sequences; I sensed undercurrents of rage where she saw forced humor.) You start to become aware of tiny sensory details in the space that don’t usually come to the forefront–the scent of the raw wood that makes up the set, or the flour in the potato bread; the small shifts in the light (which to me became obtrusive enough to be annoying, creating the feeling of scene breaks that didn’t feel intuitive to me); the relative arrangements of crockery on the tables that Evelyn and Evelyn Brown move around and reset obsessively in the play’s concluding sequence.
That final sequence, with china and silverware moved from one table to the text, and the tables themselves coming into and out of the space, starts to degenerate into ritualized repetition that seems to accomplish nothing. Reagan sometimes seems to be adjusting the pacing to convey a sense of frustration with the tasks at hand, but we never really know the purpose of those tasks.Is Evelyn laying a table to entertain guests we never see? Or is it just more of the quotidian tasks that fill her day? Domestic labor may be relentless, but that doesn’t mean it’s pointless, and the distinction feels somewhat obscured here.
To the extent that Evelyn Brown (A Diary) is about the monotony, the solitary labor, even the meditative quality of the domestic, Fornés and Reagan are conveying it. But Evelyn’s diary also portrays a social world of visits and letters and deaths. In Fornés’s hands, Evelyn Brown was an observer of rather than a participant in that broader community. In 1980, zeroing in on that forgotten or overlooked domestic labor was one kind of feminist statement, but in 2023, I find myself more curious about the world of which Evelyn was also a part.