In 1929 the Soviet government initiated a rural collectivization program in Ukraine, confiscating privately held farms and turning the farmers into state workers. The results were disastrous. By 1932, people were starving by the millions. Cannibalism was a big enough problem that posters were reportedly printed reminding people that "to eat your own children is a barbarian act."
Some argue that this catastrophe, known now as the Holodomor, wasn't a bureaucratic failure but a sinister success—an act of genocide designed to wreck Ukrainian hopes for independence.
Abbey Fenbert's new play, Sickle, attempts to engage the Holodomor at an intimate level by focusing on a single Ukrainian farming village. The crisis is upon us from the start. The men have been deported as class traitors for resisting collectivization; the women maintain discipline as best they can, guarding the land, foraging for food, rationing scraps while attempting not to die or go mad. Into their midst comes Nadya, a fresh-faced member of the Young Communist League, tasked with seeing to it that the party line is toed even if it kills every last villager.
In an ideal world Sickle might be about Nadya's struggle to reconcile her ideological purity with the dire circumstances she finds on what we'd now call "the ground." Fenbert certainly seems interested in that aspect of things. But her script is too diffuse—and too in love with the poetry of the Ukrainian women's black humor—to develop that theme with any force or clarity. Elizabeth Lovelady's Red Theater staging doesn't compensate either. And so the Holodomor remains an abstraction when the job was to render it horrifyingly concrete. v