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WBAA Arts: A Poison Squad Of Whispering Women

The play “A Poison Squad of Whispering Women”, produced by the Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette, opened Thursday for a special three-evening run at the Fowler House in Lafayette. The more intimate viewing experience brings audiences close to a story from the past with modern relevance. 

When playwright Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos moved to Indiana seven years ago, she says she was surprised when she learned about the Hoosier state’s history of affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. Historical fiction plays are McBurnette-Andronicos’s specialty. When she learned the Indiana Klan was the largest in the country in the mid-1920s, she knew she’d found her next project.

McBurnette-Andronicos began drafting "A Poison Squad of Whispering Women" in 2016. She says it’s a fictionalized story, inspired by real events. While specific moments in history weave throughout the production—such as the devastating 1925 Tri-State Tornado--it’s centered around five women as they attempt to bring down a Grand Dragon from the Indiana Klan.

“This is not a play that preaches to the choir—there’s no easy answers,” McBurnette-Andronicos says. “You should question ideas, and you should question your ideas about those ideas.”

She says audiences might be surprised at how their fellow Hoosiers saw life in the 1920s—and how some of those views are still subjects of modern debate. In one scene, a character denounces prayer in schools.

“There is contemporary relevance,” McBurnette-Andronicos says. “I actually quote from current-day politicians, and if you’re paying attention, there are all kinds of Easter eggs in the script of direct quotes from today’s politicians. Basically, you don’t know if it was said in 1924 or if it was said in 2016.”

That contemporary relevance also hits close to home in Lafayette, where multiple rounds of Ku Klux Klan flyers have been distributed in the past few years—most recently this month. While the play highlights the Klan’s past, their message lingers in the present.

A "more intimate, perhaps uncomfortable, experience"

Four nights before the first performance, Civic Theatre Producing Artistic Director Rachel Lopez calls her team of actors and production staff to order during a rehearsal.

“All right! Here we go!” Lopez says.

The dry run is unlike most of the Civic Theatre’s rehearsals—it’s taking place in the great room of the Fowler House. 

Credit Carly Rosenberger / WBAA
Kate Vander Velden, who plays Opal Hightower, between scenes.

The nearly one hundred and  seventy-year-old mansion, complete with creaky floors and doors, roots both actors and audience in a realistic setting. While the venue was chosen due to a packed calendar at the Civic Theatre’s downtown space, McBurnette-Andronicos and Lopez agree the mansion is actually an ideal location for the historically driven play. Lopez says she loves the space, though the unusual location presents some challenges.

“Tech-wise it’s kind of a nightmare because we’re having to create lightning and all these special effects with very limited resources, and in a space that’s not conducive to dramatic effects,” Lopez says.

While some actors wait offstage in the kitchen area, others are on the second floor of the mansion, rushing to change costumes in time for their next line. Sometimes, the thick plaster walls prevent the actors and crew from hearing certain cues. And the watching audience is an arm’s-length away.

“It’s not a theater with one hundred fifty plus seats,” McBurnette-Andronicos says. “It’s thirty-five seats that are arranged in a circle around the room, so you’re in the room with the actors where the action is taking place. It should make for a much more intimate, perhaps uncomfortable, experience.”

Although the show is sold out, Lopez says she wants the Civic Theatre to continue doing off-site, immersive productions in the future.

“I’m always open to those ideas,” Lopez says. “I love collaborating with other arts organizations and other local businesses or local, you know, any part of the community. When we can branch out and create theatre in different spaces, I’m all about that.”

McBurnette-Andronicos says “A Poison Squad of Whispering Women” is still a work in progress. She’ll keep revising the story after this weekend’s run is over.

“Nothing’s perfect,” she says. “It won’t ever be perfect. Nor should it be.”