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Fear and Pleasure at a Toxic Atomic Age Site in Backyard Renaissance ‘Witch Country’

A spooky ritual in “Witchland” at the Backyard Renaissance Theater Photo courtesy of Studio B Photo Productions

Ahh, charming and pastoral Richland, located in Southeast Washington State at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia rivers. A multitude of outdoor activities. Three hundred days of sunshine a year. And something much darker below.

In 1943, the US military established the engineering works of Hanford (now called the Hanford site). It was there, as part of the Manhattan Project, that 74 tonnes of plutonium was created for the Trinity Test, the type of bomb later dropped on Nagasaki. Since the end of the Cold War, 56 million gallons of radioactive waste have been kept in underground tanks. Cleaning up the environment is the mission, but it should take another 50 years.

And the tanks are leaking. The vapors they give off contain radioactive chemicals known to cause cancer as well as brain and lung damage. Richland has been called “the most toxic place in the Western Hemisphere”. America’s own Chernobyl.

No wonder we had to sign a detailed waiver before entering the Hanford nuclear site (at the center of the arts on Tenth Avenue downtown), home to “Witchland” of the Backyard Renaissance Theater.

We are brought into the theater by people in hazmat suits. The sounds and the lighting are austere and strange. Things will only get louder, more annoying and downright creepy.

We follow the story of a beautiful Seattle family – two white fathers and their teenage black daughter. A father, an engineer, has just landed a job at the Richland nuclear site (the town is named after Nelson Rich, state legislator and real estate developer). Jared will be part of the household (three times the salary!), Where they will all move for “only two years”.

Van (Daren Scott), a restaurant manager, and Ali (Amira Temple), a popular and high-achieving high school student, don’t want to go. But Jared (Christopher Louie Szabo) insists it will be great for the family.

Then, they discover that their new excavation is in front of the “house of the witch”. After some heartbreaking experiences, they and others begin to call the town Witchland.

Beginning playwright Tim Mulligan (a longtime friend of BYR co-founders Francis Gercke and Jessica John, who helped him polish the play), knows what he’s talking about. He was born and raised in Richland, and even worked at the nuclear site during high school, where the sports team IS really called The Bombers, with a mushroom cloud as a logo.

The Gerckes and guest director Andrew Oswald put together a stellar cast of eleven – excellent actors and howlers, all of them. (Kay Marian McNellen, as Ali’s new friend, is especially good at dizzying screams).

There is something to shout about. But not much to say, or it would spoil all the spooky and supernatural surprises.

You should know that there are two levels of spectators (identified by color coded bracelets): the All-Scares and the Scaredy Cats, those who want or don’t want to be completely submerged (i.e. touched and terrified throughout the procedure). You have the choice.

For a theater company, it is a formidable challenge to make a real fear on stage believable. But this exceptional production makes it happen in spades (there’s even a fear coordinator and haunt specialist, Jeffrey Neitzel).

With a highly inventive design team (set and properties by Tony Cucuzzella, lighting by Lorena Harvey, sound by George Yé, and costumes by Faith A. James, Zak Weinrich, Lilymoon Perez and Jessica John), the creators set a breathtaking and edgy backdrop. . – hectic environment.

Amid all the terror, did I mention the laughter? The play is filled with fun, thanks in large part to the skills of Daren Scott, whose hilariously dry character could have been written expressly for him. Due to skillful writing and acting, dialogue feels natural throughout (although there is some scary speaking in tongues).

No detail is left unexplored, and in a chilling bit of likelihood, some of the symptoms of ‘possession’ experienced after contact with the witch (played at different ages and stages by Kate Rose Reynolds, Dagmar Krause Fields and Liliana Talwatte), precisely mirroring the symptoms of those who have fallen ill in the real Richmond, where there may not be a witch, but the nuclear reverberations are certainly gruesome and horrific. Poor haunted and tormented Judith seems to represent Mulligan’s (evil) imagination at work.

While it can’t exactly be said that all of the grim events are resolved in the end (they also aren’t in Richmond without a witch), this choppy play provides an evening of sheer fright and fun.


  • The Backyard Renaissance Theater production of “land of witches»Takes place at Tenth Avenue Arts Center, 903 10e Avenue in downtown San Diego, November 18 to December 12
  • The performances take place at 8 p.m. from Thursday to Saturday and at 7 p.m. on Sunday
  • Tickets ($ 32 to $ 40) are available on backyardrenaissance.com
  • Duration: 75 min.

Pat Launer, member of the American Theater Critics Association, is a longtime San Diego art writer and Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of his insights and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.







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