It's fitting that for a play about resolving unfinished business, David Milroy's Windmill Baby is at once deeply satisfying and profoundly unsettling. Watching Linda Kennedy's transfixing performance as Maymay Starr, an aboriginal woman who returns to confront old ghosts at the cattle ranch of her youth, we leave the theater thrilled by the power of memory, yet disconsolate at our helplessness to alter the amber-frozen past. We are buoyed by those relationships that have armored and defined us. We are resigned to our impotence at what might have been.
It's the cocktail of mortality, and Kennedy, in one of the most immersive performances seen on a St. Louis stage in quite some time, pours it with intoxicating strength in Upstream Theater's U.S. premiere of this one-woman drama from Down Under.
Set at a defunct cattle station in Western Australia, Windmill Baby takes us on a journey through Maymay's early years, the bad old days when white stationmasters exploited aboriginal labor to pad their profits. Under Philip Boehm's direction, Kennedy fully realizes the character, who worked as a domestic under the estate's cruel white Boss and his porcelain Missus. Nearly half a century has passed, and Kennedy gives a nervy, shape-shifting performance, as she summons old spirits on Patrick Huber's broke-down set of falling fences and creaking windmills. Off to the right is the squeaking skeleton of a bed where Maymay conceived her daughter and under which her husband once escaped the Boss' wrath. Across the stage is a rusty washtub that still houses the Missus' washing. Presiding over it all is the titular windmill, which stand sentry over one of Maymay's brightest memories: the once-verdant garden tended by Wunman, an aboriginal cripple the Boss nearly banished had the Missus not prevailed.
As Maymay, Kennedy employs her estimable skills to portray a woman who was willful yet deferent in youth, and generous if a little impatient in old age. She chants. She dances. She moves briskly about the stage as she relives her past, making eye contact with audience members and even pulling one onstage to tell a botanical metaphor of nobility.
Once the obsolescent windmill groans to life, however, Kennedy does something that moves beyond mere character portrayal. Her left leg buckles. Her right arm juts to side. Her voice deepens, and Kennedy stammers as she transforms into Wunman, whose simple love for the Missus proves his undoing. Then, in an instant, Maymay is back, continuing her tale of loss. A moment later, however, Kennedy has transmuted once again, becoming lumpish and tongue-chewing as Maymay's husband, Malvern — awkward as he gifts her a ruby ring, impetuous as he plots to kill the Boss. Kennedy dances delicately as the Missus. She's stroppy as Maymay's romantic rival, Sally. She's fierce and imposing as the Boss, and she's downright hilarious as Skitchim, Wunman's amorous half-Dingo mongrel.
It's one thing for an actor to impersonate several characters (twelve, by my count). It's quite another to portray several of them with such physicality and emotion that they gain the audience's sympathy, filling the stage with their external actions and internal lives.
Kennedy's extraordinary performance is bolstered in no small measure by Farshid Soltanshahi's understated musical accompaniment. Playing a range of instruments — everything from a guitar and a harmonica, to a kora and a kalimba — Soltanshahi creates ambient noises and snatches of song as Maymay relives her past, explaining herself to the spirits and trying, finally, to settle her unfinished business.
But some things cannot be changed. And as Maymay reveals her story of loss in the face of impossible circumstance, she is never so deluded as to think it can be made right. All Maymay can do is make peace. It's a sobering hangover from life's strong brew, yes, but Maymay has little choice in the matter. And as the stage lights dim, neither do we.