The desert setting of “Hope Springs,” lee folpe’s ’23 mammoth play about the relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit, literally bifurcates the audience. The play, which ran last weekend in the Holden Experimental Theater, is performed in-between two groups of seats, not unlike a runway show or a high school football game. The setting, a permaculture and art center right on the border of Joshua Tree National Park, becomes impressively immersive by letting characters and set-pieces span wider than the audience’s field of view. It takes on the expansiveness and also the smallness of desert living — one gets the sense that, besides the few visible structures, the land in the world of the play is uninhabitable and empty, open and yet completely inaccessible.
The stage represents the small section of the center, also called Hope Springs, where volunteers are permitted to live — though it’s not exactly a welcoming habitat. Soon after Miriam (Cameron Mueller-Harder ’23) and Alex (Erin Williams ’26) arrive on the farm at the beginning of the play, they encounter the center’s owner, Lakshmi, played by Smith alumna Hero Marguerite. Lakshmi informs the newcomers that there are no beds prepared for them at the moment and that they will just have to sleep in a hammock, which sits on one end of the stage next to a pop-up tent shading a flimsy outdoor table and a few chairs.
On the other end is a kind of combined kitchen-bedroom, the largest structure in the set. It holds just one double bed, separated from a kitchen area by a thin red curtain. The kitchen works well enough to cook, but the refrigerator has grown a block of ice in its upper half large enough to prevent the machine from functioning properly. It is established early in the play that fixing it is near impossible — you either have to unplug the fridge and lose what’s in it while you wait for the ice to melt, or literally break the massive block.
“Hope Springs” follows Miriam and Alex through their summer job as laborers on Lakshmi’s farm and arts center. Her approach to farming uses the precepts of permaculture, which attempts to recreate systems and arrangements that are observed in natural ecosystems. Theoretically, this self-sustaining ecosystem allows the desired crop to flourish without requiring any input from outside forces. As she repeats obsessively throughout the play, the farm must remove all unnecessary inputs, and the land is made better by creating a more closed system. To Lakshmi, in a feat of optimization-focused thinking conveniently aligned with the profit motive she has as landowner, the ideal permaculture farm employs no workers at all.
Therefore, stewardship of the center is handled by a group of workers who are used by Lakshmi as a stand-in for mechanized labor. In fact, it is revealed that Lakshmi has plans to rid herself of all human workers as soon as she can get an automated irrigation system installed. The system could do all the watering that otherwise requires human workers and the inputs necessary to keep them alive (like payment, or food). Here, Lakshmi conflates land stewardship with capitalist efficiency. She disregards and exploits her workforce and asks them to abuse the land — the workers’ primary job being the incessant watering (with a real hose and real dirt!) of crops throughout the dry, hot days — in order to create a contrived beauty in the art center. As she tells Miriam at the first staff meeting, each plant and garden bed must look like a work of art. Nevermind that the gardens are meant to produce food, not art, that they are not under any human’s creative control, and that they are literally in a desert, during a historic heatwave, in a drought year.
When Miriam and Alex come to Hope Springs, they meet several more experienced workers. Kat, played by Eva Tsitohay ’23, is an experienced farmer who is vying for the vacant site manager position and doesn’t appreciate the newcomers’ inexperience. Nura, played by Snigdha Ranjan ’25, is a skilled worker and one of the few truly kind faces on the farm. She mediates between Kat and Miriam, who face early tension over Miriam’s inexperience and their ambitions for a permanent position on the farm. In reality, Kat asserts, neither of them have a chance at site manager since Lakshmi’s “old school” values will only permit her to hire someone white and with a degree in agricultural sciences. Neither Kat, who is Black, nor Miriam, who is non-binary and completely new to farming, fit into Lakshmi’s vision of a good site manager, but their enmity ends up serving the interests of Lakshmi even while she makes their lives miserable.
Marguerite’s perfect depiction of Lakshmi as an evil twist on the quintessential quasi-spiritualist old western lady is one of the highlights of the production. Lakshmi exploits and abuses her workers, pitting them against each other in the name of Hope Springs. That dynamic is clearest in the discord between Miriam and Kat, as Miriam’s ambition is dismissed by Kat, who sees herself as the obvious choice for the site manager position. Miriam resents Kat for her confidence as well as her dismissal of Lakshmi’s practices, since Miriam idolizes the old lady — they even say that Lakshmi seems like exactly who they want to be when they’re older. Mueller-Harder gives this kind of naive trust dramatic weight in their perfectly-judged performance of the tired and traumatized Miriam. They position themselves as a loyal and industrious worker from the very beginning, taking on projects solo that no one else at the center wants to touch. However, when one project turns out differently than they hoped, Lakshmi makes fun of Miriam’s naive hope that they would be rewarded for working harder than anyone else and that they had any chance at the site manager position. She outright says that if anyone at the center were to get the job, it would be Kat. Miriam’s shame, anger, and resentment boil over all at once and they accuse Kat of being a compulsive thief and an untrustworthy employee, a false accusation. Lakshmi, shocked by the accusation, fires Kat at once. Miriam’s ambition and their discord with a fellow worker becomes fodder for their own exploitation — a feature of capitalist labor abuse that slots nicely into Lakshmi’s devotion to the removal of “unnecessary inputs.” Lakshmi’s communal desert paradise, at its core, is just a business, desperate for the approval of constantly visiting investors and the removal of anything that could detract from profit.
Tsitohay’s confident and competent Kat fulfills her fate in the final scene before intermission, where she destroys one of the planters center stage in her anger over Miriam’s accusation. Alex reflects after intermission that, for Kat, who loved the center’s plants with all her being, destroying the planter must not be that different from a mother killing her own children — something that rings painfully true in Tsitohay’s acting as she crumples over the planter, soil surrounding her. The garden and Kat’s own body are linked, as the plants’ life is dependent on Kat’s care. This connection between human body and earthly life is central to “Hope Springs,” and as the play continues, it becomes more and more clear that the question of stewardship, applied not only to the earth but to our bodies and communities, is what drives the play.
Lakshmi presents a different kind of equivalency between earth and body as she explains, at one staff meeting, her plans for a solo meditative retreat and her diet of no food or water — just nutrient-rich juice. Lakshmi had previously commented on how thin Miriam is, and her comments about her own weight as well as memories of her mother and sisters’ bulimia reveal an upbringing where those closest to her went through incredible pain to control their own bodies.
This approach to her body clearly informs her philosophy of land management, which ignores the needs of the land to impose a contrived and beautiful order, just as she fetishizes spiritualists who go months without eating while meditating in caves. This ignorance extends to the center’s community, too — Lakshmi’s division of her workers leads to their discontent with each other, and the audience experiences visceral discomfort at watching the workers live with each other while they are so deeply unhappy.
Nura is the only really kind character we see in the play’s first half, as she runs away from the awful environment of the center the first chance she gets — great for her character, sure, but Nura goes underdeveloped as the play focuses on bigger conflicts on the way to its second half, and the audience misses out on seeing more of Ranjan’s acting.
The only real outlier in the toxic community dynamic established in the play’s first half is Seth, played by a laid back Will Amend ’24. Seth is the heir to a line of homesteaders who “settled” the land the center is built on — it is hinted that Lakshmi bought the land from his family, leaving him without any property but still living in the place where he grew up. Lakshmi worships Seth’s “indigenous” knowledge of the area Lakshmi now owns, conflating Seth’s empire-settler forebears with people actually native to the lands he now lives on. Seth is essentially disenfranchised by Lakshmi’s purchase of his land, but he maintains a class position above those of the workers because of his special knowledge and Lakshmi’s favor. He has access to private spaces that the other workers don’t, he’s allowed to slack off, and he doesn’t depend on Lakshmi for his livelihood. In fact, it’s probable that he just lives off whatever money came to him by the sale of his land. He’s kind of a ghost, then, who is allowed to exist within the system but not to partake in it. Of course, he still reinforces it — Seth is the one who installs the irrigation system that will replace the center’s workers. Mostly, though, Seth chills out, strumming guitar or throwing his hatchet or sitting and smoking somewhere on stage. And his final disappearance, into the desert night after taking some hallucinogenic seeds, is emblematic of his status apart from the other characters. Without his property, he’s really powerless, but his status means he isn’t exploited by the other workers. He occupies the in-between, liminal space of the bullshit job, which can only end in insanity.
The second half of the play introduces Cybele, a bubbly-mannered dreamer and artist played by the Mount Holyoke student Molly Malloy. Malloy embodies Cybele’s charming bounciness, which is fueled by her excitement for learning about the earth and for making art. Lakshmi’s farmer-artist paradise is therefore perfect for Cybele (on paper), so she’s eager to work at Hope Springs for as long as she can.
Lakshmi, however, is no kinder with Cybele than with the other workers. When Cybele stays out overnight, Lakshmi accuses her of abandoning the farm for some man before promising to purchase one of Cybele’s pieces of art, thus buying her loyalty while undermining her autonomy.
Cybele, Miriam, and Alex together drive forward the remainder of the play, as they manage to bond despite the oppressive environment. However, as Lakshmi’s retreat grows near, it becomes clear that the three workers have never actually been paid for their work, that the “subsistence” living of the permaculture farm has failed (which certainly says something about the resilience of Lakshmi’s “closed system” ideal) and the workers have had to dip into their own savings to survive the summer. Lakshmi, however, won’t hear their complaints, and the workers’ devotion to their crops is such that, even while Lakshmi berates them for failing to abide by the principles of permaculture by buying groceries to eat, Miriam still leaves to perform their irrigation duties. The workers want so badly to learn about the earth and take care of crops in a sustainable way that they are vulnerable to Lakshmi’s exploitation. She reminds the cast again and again of their lack of gratitude for the incredible opportunity she provides at the center — a manipulative line that never fails to strike a chord with the workers, who all came to work because of that very opportunity.
Conflicts come to a head after Lakshmi leaves for her retreat, and the remaining scenes grow heavier and more emotional. But as the mood darkens, Alex comes into his own. His grim acceptance of living at the farm only to support Miriam despite having no interest in organic farming himself starts as his sole trait. His loneliness quickly becomes overpowering, however, and he blossoms in the second half into a character who advocates finally for himself. He does not want to do anyone harm, perhaps less than any other character in the play, but he cannot stand his loneliness, and he needs to be loved. His arc is the most satisfying in the play, and Williams’ performance is just perfect — after seeing “Hope Springs,” I can’t imagine anyone else playing Alex.
After a confrontation with Miriam about their diverging ambitions, Alex resolves to leave Hope Springs without them. That leaves Miriam emotionally fraught when they take a powerful hallucinogen with Seth and Cybele — prompting Seth’s final disappearance into the desert. What follows is an inspired use of stage lighting and costuming, as director Grace Bertuccelli-Booth ’12 brings Miriam’s nightmare to real, actual being on the stage. The result, with spotlights against total darkness and masked figures moving strangely across the stage and Lakshmi’s return as the dancer she was in her youth, is almost shocking to watch. What the crew was able to do with the stage was more than I ever could have imagined.
As Seth runs off, Miriam is left alone in the dark theater with the reverberating voices of Kat, Alex, Lakshmi, and Nura reminding Miriam that a farm must produce crops in order to improve itself and that learning from the past is the key to making lasting change. Then there is a great noise, and phantoms wearing masks that look like they could be giant potato sprouts, faces taking root, take the stage. They wander strangely, not acknowledging Miriam, before gathering to dance before Lakshmi. She returns in the hallucination wearing a dress from her past — a red silk gown she wore when she moved to India to study Bharatanatyam, a classical style of dance. This is a favorite story of hers, and throughout the play she makes reference to her time in India, and how beautiful she was. Her fetishization of bodily control here becomes orientalising, as her conception of herself as a sexual dancer with her ghostly worshippers relies on this dress that she apparently wore while studying a style of classical religious dance. Moreover, it was revealed earlier that she only began calling herself Lakshmi after the time she spent in India — Her real name is Esther, and she was raised Jewish. As she dances, the ghosts coalesce into a circle around her, and as the music cuts the group begins to sing in frenzied Hebrew. The hallucination finally ends with Lakshmi thrusting Seth’s abandoned hatchet on Miriam with an echo of a broken hope from the play’s beginning: “Maybe if you clean out the fridge, I’ll let you live in it.”
Since Miriam is so high that she saw her fellow workers turned into masked ghosts dancing around a very-much-not-real Lakshmi, they do not succeed in breaking the giant block of ice in the fridge with their hatchet and hurt themselves horribly in the process. Alex is again thrust into a caretaking role, which brings them back together even as it leads to the most emotionally fraught confrontation in the play.
Lakshmi returns to Hope Springs after Cybele has left and just as Alex and Miriam are getting ready to leave. They have a tense standoff when Lakshmi realizes that she holds the pair’s drivers’ licenses, taken from them when they arrived so that Lakshmi could fill out various forms and waivers. Alex and Miriam free themselves by virtue of a victory for good labor practices: Though they gave over their licenses, they never signed Lakshmi’s liability waiver, leaving her vulnerable to suit for the immense injuries sustained by the two workers. Lakshmi, vanquished, hands over their hostage drivers’ licenses and the pair are freed.
Early on in the play, Miriam reveals that their interest in farming comes from a pipe dream about starting a “big queer supportive non-biological chosen family farm” — to which Seth responds, “So, a cult?” But a cult, where a toxic community is held together by the dogmas of a twisted but charismatic leader, sounds a bit more like Lakshmi’s Hope Springs to me. There is immense danger in placing one’s faith in an ideology like beauty, in succumbing to the allure of efficiency and of a controllable system. Closed systems, as Bertuccelli-Booth says in her directors’ note, don’t exist in the real world. Believing that profit will create something beautiful leads Lakshmi to live in an imaginary world, where her workers are able to subsist on self-sustaining gardens that have all died, where the earth can be beautiful because it is orderly. These intoxicating ideas bring about her inevitable failure in her pursuit of stewardship. She refuses to take responsibility for the people who help her and for the earth that sustains her. This is her fatal flaw, the first mistake that begets all of the others.
Above all things, “Hope Springs” asserts that we must take responsibility for what we belong to: our earth, our communities, and our bodies. If we do nothing else, we must put that before all other things. We cannot put our beliefs — in profit, efficiency, or order — before the caretaking of life. Stewardship is the most essential virtue. Everything else will follow.