Philly playwright reimagines slightly uneasy ‘Peaceable Kingdom’

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"Peaceable Kingdom" is playing at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City until the end of May.(Kathryn Raines)

Inspired by one of the most famous of Quaker paintings, a new play is being staged in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania folk artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849) kept painting “Peaceable Kingdom” over and over again — 62 times — as if he had to return to the same image constantly because it never came out right. The image was always fundamentally the same: a wilderness scene of wild animals co-existing in the same space, depicting the biblical passage of the lion lying down with the lamb.

Each time he revisited the image, Hicks would vary it slightly. Two of those paintings have a home in Philadelphia, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“The version I grew up with is in the National Gallery. That was the print on my grandma’s wall,” said playwright Mary Tuomanen. “I stared at it a lot as a kid.”

That particular version of the painting features William Penn in the background shaking hands with Chief Tamanend of the Lenape tribe, sealing a treaty between the English expatriate and the American natives.

“The naïveté of the style is reflected in the idea that lions and lambs can lie down together, and that Penn shaking hands with Chief Tamanend is heralding a beautiful utopian future,” said Tuomanen. “There is something hopeless and beautiful about that. I wish it were that simple.”

Tuomanen is not the first to find inspiration in Edward Hicks. In 1936, composer Randall Thompson wrote “Peaceable Kingdom” as a choral work. Later, he would become the head of Philadelphia Curtis Institute for a few years.

In Tuomanen’s play, an octet of singers dressed as a stand of oaks performs the choral piece. The singers make up the forest where actors dressed as animals debate, argue, and bicker with each other. The set design has a handmade quality, and the costumes are made from fabric scraps, mimicking the simple design of the folk art paintings.

“It’s very naïve, it looks like a school play. An advanced school play, but a school play,” said Tuomanen. “We were interested in a community telling a story about itself. Which is what those paintings are.”

Tuomanen said her play is not as cheerful as the paintings. As the story plays out, a darkness is gradually revealed as the peaceful animals play out their primal instincts.

The Hicks paintings — seen en masse — may not be as naïve as they appear individually. Hicks was living during a period of great turmoil in the Quaker faith. An ideological rift was splitting the religion apart. His 62 paintings reflect the schism, as the animals appear increasingly anxious and restless.

Tuomanen did not grow up Quaker — she was raised in Baptist in New Hampshire, her grandmother with the Hicks print was Catholic — but she converted as an adult. She said she is attracted to Quakerism because of its activist legacy.

“Meeting often feels like AA for activists,” said Tuomanen, whose recently produced play “Marcus/Emma” fictionalized the radical activists Marcus Garvey and Emma Goldman.

“It was helpful to be with people who were asking questions, wanting to do better, and re-evaluating their own spirituality, ethics, and their walk in the world,” she said. “Taking time to take comfort together in silence. That’s not how I grew up.”

As a playwright, Tuomanen has made work that is both entertaining and provocative. As a Quaker, she feels an additional responsibility in how she portrays Quaker ideals. One of the performances during the three-week run will host many members of Arch Street Friends, Tuomanen’s meeting house.

“Peaceable Kingdom” plays at Christ Church Neighborhood House, in Old City, until the end of May.

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