Jennifer Treadway isn’t a one-woman show. As lead instructor of Blue Ridge Community College’s Theatre Department, she loves to tackle hard issues, involve departments throughout the school, and reach into the community when staging productions.
“I wanted to know more about domestic violence so that I can be a better advocate if I have a student cross my door who is dealing with that,” she says.
Battered, the play that resulted, was written by BRCC English instructor Katie Winkler and directed by Treadway. The script telescopes deeply through time and through the consciousness of the main character. It’s a layered work about memory, story, and violent relationships resonating across centuries.
Julia, a playwright and domestic-violence survivor, has written a play about the creation of the “Ring and the Book,” the poet Robert Browning’s book-length magnum opus, published in 1868. In the first level, we see Julia directing her actors. That play, the next level, explores the loving relationship between Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as the troubled, controlling, violent relationship Elizabeth had with her own father.
Then the play dives even deeper, into the drama of “The Ring and the Book,” which Robert Browning based on the true story of 17th-century nobleman Count Guido Franceschini of Rome, who murdered his young wife Pompilia and her parents after she tried to escape their abusive marriage. It’s a play Winkler has wanted to write since she first read “The Ring and the Book” in graduate school. The pieces seemed to fall into place when Treadway approached her with the topic.
Clips of video show Julia’s relationship with her abuser as the various plot lines echo or intersect her life. Julia dives through them as her actors perform, and they elucidate her history and inner life.
“Over the course of the play, [Julia] realizes that, no, that’s not the way things are, and I am okay now, because she’s visited by these voices,” says Natalie Broadway, who plays the lead role. The very voices that Julia has created bring her to an epiphany and help her heal.
Just as Julia learns about herself as her play is workshopped, so the local actors have learned much. “We had a psychology and sociology professor who teach here come and talk to us about [domestic violence],” says student Madison Daughety, who’s taken on two roles: Julia’s friend and Pompilia.
Students have also gained valuable experience in craft. “I think that when we collaborate on plays, the students get this buy-in that they don’t get [with scripted plays],” says Winkler. “When the playwright’s right there, the students can interject: ‘Oh you know, this doesn’t sound quite right’ … and then the playwright can make adjustments.”
Some darkly funny moments lighten the subject matter — including a line straight from Browning’s poem that alludes to fake news. “How much have things really changed?” muses Treadway.
Battered will run Thursday, April 11 through Saturday, April 13 at 7pm and Sunday, April 14 at 2pm at Blue Ridge Community College’s Patton Auditorium. $7/general admission. A panel following the Sunday matinee will include a community Q&A. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.