Rich content for kids in ‘Through the Sunken Lands’ at Kennedy Center

This intriguing and compelling musical is an effective example of how theater builds empathy in young minds.

By Morgan Pavey

What impressed me most about director Cara Phipp’s production of Through the Sunken Lands at Kennedy Center was not just that it succeeded in being theatrically entertaining, but that it centered around rich and complex content for a young audience to consider during their make-believe ride. The intriguing book by Tim J. Lord and compelling music and lyrics by Avi Amon left me with a positive feeling that this was not your average family theater performance, but an effective example of how theater builds empathy in young minds.

Meredith Aleigha Wells as Artemis and Sarah Anne Sillers as Maggie in ‘Through the Sunken Lands.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

The story follows Artemis, a young woman determined to survive the immediate aftermath of a flood that has overwhelmed her hometown of Arcady. Separated from her Aunt Maggie and the rest of her town, she teams up with a talking heron, Nicodemus, who is working to find the cause behind this environmental disaster and reverse it before Arcady becomes uninhabitable. As a bright, adventurous spirit who is also living with a condition that requires her to use a wheelchair, Artemis grapples with her own questions along the way: Is her town worth saving in light of her constant battles for access? A mysterious Committee complicates her decision with tempting offers for a better world elsewhere.

The cast was dedicated and talented across the board, performing this intricate and twisting story in a way that was both clear for kids and enjoyable for adults.

Meredith Aleigha Wells employed superb technique as Artemis, skillfully conveying complicated plot points (both spoken and sung) with energy and clarity. Her movement and choreography were active and fun, proving just how full of life and motion her character was, disability and all.

Carl L. Williams made fantastic use of vocal pitch in his fluid puppeteering as the talking heron, Nicodemus. Williams earned the biggest laughs of the show from the audience across all ages.

Meredith Aleigha Wells as Artemis and Carl L. Williams as Nicodemus in ‘Through the Sunken Lands.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Standout singing performances came from a soulful Sarah Anne Sillers in her solo songs as Aunt Maggie, as well as a wide-ranging Farrell Parker (playing CPA 1 and others), who notably had the audience bopping along while belting out a beat from an enormous fish-head puppet.

Anna Theoni DiGiovanni (CPA 2 and others) delivered the strongest acting performance of the ensemble, turning the sinister and silly Committee into a treat to watch each time they were onstage.

The production design was impressive but had mixed results in supporting the world of the play. The pre-performance lighting and sound design were immersive and clear, drawing us into the stage as soon as we took our seats. Lighting continued to be used effectively throughout the show to support emotional arcs and focus us on character changes. But while the set design of the library roof upon which Artemis is stranded was detailed, clever, and fun to look at, I found myself wondering if a story that involved so much water and weather might not have benefitted from a set that allowed for more shifting and motion.

Thematically, Through the Sunken Lands offers a launching pad for conversations around some important and multilayered topics: environmental disaster and its causes, land ownership, disability and access, what makes a place a home, and how that home might be made more inclusive for everyone. These are all experiences that Artemis works through during the story, and one of the major successes of this production is how easily we can relate to her and admire her as she tackles these big ideas.

For example, Artemis’s disability shapes her perspectives and experiences throughout the play, but it is far from her only defining characteristic. Artemis is brave, self-reliant, capable, street-smart, and mature enough to question the world around her. Her dependency on her wheelchair is one reason to yearn for exploration, but that’s also a completely normal feeling in a young person, ready to take on the world. Similarly, her fight for access is only one reason why she doesn’t always feel at home in her hometown.

Instead of looking at this character and thinking, “We’re different,” I can see a myriad of ways in which a younger audience member might be able to look at this character and think, “We want the same things, but our ways or abilities to get them might look different. I wonder what that’s like?”

Anna Theoni DiGiovanni, Farrell Parker, Sarah Anne Sillers, Carl L. Williams, and Meredith Aleigha Wells in ‘Through the Sunken Lands.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Another big-picture empathy challenge offered by this story: We as an audience enter Arcady as an already-sunken place, and have no reason to be invested in its recovery other than on principle. Our main character isn’t sold on saving Arcady, we never saw it in its heyday, and thus have no idea of how to build it back to what it was or better than before. Why care about saving an imperfect world that we have never personally known?

Through the Sunken Lands does not answer this question, exactly, but posing it to us is the real success of the story. In a time when we are so bombarded with disaster news that protecting our kids is often a priority overexposing them, how do we teach empathy over apathy? How do we safely explore how something that feels like it might not be our home or our battle is still worth engaging with or advocating for on behalf of betterment for all?

Artemis and her sunken home of Arcady could help you start.

Running Time: Approximately one hour with no intermission.

Through the Sunken Lands plays through March 17, 2024, in the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($20, with student rush available) at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at (800) 444-1324.

The Through the Sunken Lands program is online here.

Most enjoyed by ages 9+.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.

Morgan Pavey received her MFA from the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting in 2020. Although no longer performing, she remains a happy theatergoer and arts advocate. She currently lives in Maryland and splits her working time between hospitality and freelance writing.


Through the Sunken Lands
Script and Lyrics by Tim J. Lord
Music and Lyrics by Avi Amon
Directed by Cara Phipps
Movement Directed by Ronya-Lee Anderson
Music Directed by Angie Benson
Sound Design by Justin Schmitz
Set Design by Jeannette Christensen
Costume Design by Jeannette Christensen
Puppet Design by Mathew Pauli

Artemis Sims – Meredith Aleigha Wells
Maggie Sims – Sarah Anne Sillers
Nicodemus – Carl L. Williams
CPA 1/Others – Farrell Parker
CPA2/Others – Anna Theoni DiGiovanni


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