America was a new country, with just 33 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when Susanna Cox was condemned to hang for infanticide. This Pennsylvania execution gripped its community at the time, but has otherwise laid low in American history. That is, till Signature Theatre's artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, commissioned playwright Bathsheba ''Bash'' Doran to tell Cox's story in Signature's new 99-seat ARK Theatre. Her final result is Nest.
''Being British, that's what excited me about the period,'' says Doran from England, away from her New York home on a visit with family, explaining that her own emigration from Britain to America mirrors the struggles of the new country. ''What is it to lose the 'mother country,' to build a new history?''
Aside from nationality, Doran jokes that being a lesbian possibly attracted her to the rustic trappings of early 19th century Pennsylvania farm country. ''I had done some sketches of Susanna Cox talking to Daniel Boone. It turns out his homestead was less than a mile from where she lived. Lesbian appreciation of the West is quite 'dykey.'''
The real insight, though, likely came from Doran's visit to the scene of the crime, where Cox killed her newborn child, in Berks County.
''It was invaluable, seeing the house where it happened, the barn where the baby was left,'' she shares. ''It was definitely creepy. I'm not someone with a particular belief in ghosts, but when I got to the house it felt like a disturbed area. There was a sense of ... a burial ground, of the dead.''
While Doran's own cheery disposition counters the macabre mood she describes, the ARK space helps to deliver just that to audiences, she says, providing a certain air of claustrophobia that may help audiences empathize with the literal tightening of the noose.
''I imagined Nest in sort of a large space. Now that I've seen it in the ARK, I can't imagine it anywhere else.''
Nest runs through June 24 at Signature's ARK Theatre, 2800 S. Stafford St., Arlington. For more information or tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go to www.signature-theatre.org.