Holly Down in Heaven is a play in which a 15-year-old girl can talk with her dolls, which can come to life. It is also a play in which the same girl faces isolation, the loss of her mother and a looming pregnancy.
The OU Theater Division has successfully accomplished the task of putting on a play that both respects its themes’ gravity and yet remains surprisingly light throughout. Holly Down in Heaven will be performed this weekend, and more will be given the following week.
Brian Evans, an associate professor of performance and the show’s director, reconciles the disparate themes and tone of the show with its appeal to the audiences’ shared experiences.
“I think it’s in the recognition of our own growing process,” Evans said. “I think when we see other people bumbling around with or stumbling through growth, trying to grow up or become more mature, deal with issues. I think that recognition when we see them making mistakes is funny. There’s a release, because we’re all growing.”
The titular character of Holly Down in Heaven spends the duration of the play within her basement, having become a “born-again Christian” since her pregnancy and thus banishing herself from the outside world until she has fulfilled her term.
Holly isn’t quite alone, however. In fact, 250 pairs of eyes can be seen onstage, but not quite in the form of actors, although many are animated by them. The set is filled to the brim with every type of doll imaginable, creating an absolutely stunning, staggering and unnerving atmosphere throughout most of the play.
Holly, however, is comforted by those dolls. When her father, tutor or ex-lover are away, the puppets come to life through the work of puppeteers. Although not all 250 are mobile, a good number of them are, most significantly the Japanese tea server and a creepy yet comical — and extremely fond of expletives — ventriloquist version of Carol Channing (dubbed as “Dr. McNuthin” by Holly).
Zenzi Mda, a senior studying theater, switches between her other roles (such as a British queen and a Russian Matryoshka doll) and the Japanese tea server. That requires the ability to rapidly shift between voices and operating dolls, while also having as little a presence as possible.
“It was weird,” Mda said. “It’s one of those things where once you have something in front of you, you’re just able to do it. We started off with air figures, or like using a water bottle or cell phone, and then we worked our way up.”
Lauryn Glenn, a senior studying theater, plays Holly. Although excited to play the character, Glenn said she had trouble fully understanding her because she had never been pregnant, is six years older than Holly, and had trouble acting mean toward her fellow actors.
“Holly is really, really mean,” Glenn said. “And that’s one of my biggest notes from my director, just to be more mean. And it’s just so hard for me to do, but I feel like hopefully it will be rewarding once we open.”
Fortunately, Holly and the rest of her fellow actors got an unusual opportunity: a chance to speak to the playwright herself. Kara Lee Corthron, who has written multiple plays, novels and is currently writing for the Netflix TV series You, agreed to have a Skype call with the cast and answer any questions they might have. That was particularly helpful for Glenn’s understanding of the character.
“I just needed some clarity, because I was just stuck in a one-sided perspective of it,” Glenn said. “But hearing her kind of retell how she was thinking of it in her brain, and how she wanted it to reflect through the play, it was very, very awesome to hear that from the playwright herself.”
It seems to have worked. Onstage, Glenn is a tyrant, doing and saying things to others — and herself — without a second of contemplation or hesitation. Holly is quick to point out the sin in others, yet views herself, even while pregnant, equal to a saint in the eyes of God. Holly does have misgivings and regrets, but she buries them deep inside her dolls, who voice her insecurities so she doesn’t have to.
The supporting cast is equally entertaining and important to Holly’s development. Her father and tutor both have Holly’s best interests at heart, but are often attacked for trying to help her, becoming exasperated. And her ex-lover also wants to help, even if he’s made horrible mistakes and doesn’t know how to amend them. Those elements and characters mix to create a play that is weird, sad and funny.
“The cast is a beautiful ensemble,” Evans said. “It’s a beautiful group of students, both graduate and undergraduate students, who have really thrown themselves into this and given it everything they have. And that is the most rewarding thing for a teacher, to get to work with students who are passionate about what they’re doing, and who love it completely.”