R.H. Wilhoit and Dri Hernaez in Poor Clare (Cynthia Levin/Unicorn Theatre)
In Poor Clare, playwright Chiara Atik tells the story of St. Clare of Assisi, founder of the Order of Poor Ladies (later called the Order of Saint Clare or The Poor Clares), who renounced her wealth and status and dedicated herself to a life of poverty. That is the story being told but, as you might expect from a show at The Unicorn, the approach is far from conventional.
Atik modernizes this medieval story not by updating the setting, but by presenting Clare (Dri Hernaez) as a distinctly modern young woman. Visually, the play is set in the year 1211—at least loosely, with simple sets and costumes from Gary Mosby and Daniella Toscano, respectively. Tonally, the characters are undeniably contemporary, especially Clare and her sister Beatrice (Morgan Walker), who discuss the gossip of the day (which just happens to be largely Crusades-based) in what can only be described as “TikTok voice.”
The effect is a complicated conversation about poverty and inequality that is both timely and timeless—a direct challenge to both the characters and the audience to do better in their own lives while grappling with all the complexities that hold us back, making us feel helpless in the face of such a massive problem. There are no easy answers and Atik wants us to reckon with the fact that this is not an excuse to do nothing.
If that sounds exhaustingly preachy, it is to Atik’s immense credit—as well as the cast and director Andi Meyer—that it is anything but. Despite its heavy themes, Poor Clare is a genuine laugh-out-loud comedy. The entire cast is stellar—including R.H. Wilhoit as St. Francis of Assisi, Cathy Barnett as Clare’s mother, and Manon Halliburton and Teisha M. Bankston as the family’s servants—but as Clare, Dri Hernaez is a joy to watch. A third-year MFA student at UMKC, Hernaez’s physical comedy skills have made her a stand-out in recent ensemble and smaller roles at KC Rep. Her leading turn in Poor Clare makes it clear she’s an actor to keep your eye on for as long as she remains on Kansas City stages.
Poor Clare took home a number of well-deserved new play awards in 2022. Atik’s ability to use humor to dissect weighty, painful ideas is immensely impressive, and under Meyer’s skilled direction, the Unicorn’s cast executes the script to perfection. How many plays strive to be as smart as they are funny—hilarious and enjoyable to watch, but cutting enough to stick with you after you leave the theater? Few succeed like Poor Clare has here.
“Poor Clare” runs through February 11 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or visit unicorntheatre.org.