Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: feminism

Kellie Overbey, Emily Walton and Mary Bacon in Women Without Men

Review | Women Without Men | By Hazel Ellis | Directed by Jenn Thompson | Mint Theater

… the test is in the work … 

This richly characterized and surprising play by a pioneering Irish woman playwright tells us that —– women without men are a very sad lot!  It’s a fine play though.

The teachers’ lounge of Malyn Park, a private girls’ Protestant boarding school in Ireland in 1937-38 is a hothouse of intense interactions, especially when a new hire, the pretty, young Jean Wade, joins those who’ve been teaching classes and grading papers there “forever.”

Kellie Overbey, Emily Walton and Mary Bacon in Women Without Men

Kellie Overbey, Emily Walton and Mary Bacon. Photo: Richard Termine

Perky, modern Jean soon rubs almost everybody the wrong way.  Her missteps with the entrenched teachers and clashes with their idiosyncracies are amusing – for us, but they get Jean into a lot of hot water with other denizens of the teachers’ lounge.

Jean’s vivacity and can-do approach – she gets the girls involved in putting on a play – make her the students’ favorite — and the target of Ruby Ridgeway, who was the previous favorite teacher.   Then there’s prissy Miss Connor, who has been working for twenty years on a manuscript compiling “beautiful acts” that people do, and who senses at once – correctly — the new and more sophisticated teacher’s dismissal of this life work.  Margaret Willoughby, played with witty nastiness by Aedin Moloney,  throws catty remarks in Jean’s direction, too, but she’s a teacher with nasty remarks for everybody, including her students.

Emily Walton as Miss Jean Wade and Alexa Shae Niziak as Peggy Summers in Women Without Men by Hazel Ellis, Mint Theatre Production

Emily Walton and Alexa Shae Niziak. Photo: Richard Termine

“Politics” erupt here, as everywhere humans gather, and part of the humor and touching quality of this play is that the turf wars, jockeying for advantage, and general animosities are as hot and tenacious in the teachers’ lounge of a small girls’ school as they are on the global scale.

But what is remarkable, and unlike most political situations, is that there are no alliances.  Nobody is friends here.  The intelligent Miss Strong appreciates Jean’s youthful optimism and can-do spirit but has perfected keeping out of the tempests in this teapot as her way to survive.  Thus, at the play’s dramatic turning point, when Jean is accused of doing something mean, vile and destructive, the best Miss Strong can do in the face of damning evidence is withhold her judgment:  she’s not a true ally.

Something mean, vile and destructive has indeed happened, Miss Connor is the victim, and the play takes on some of the character of a whodunit.  Although all evidence and animosity point to Jean as the perpetrator, we know she didn’t do it and have a pretty good idea of who did.  The suspense lies in how she will clear her name.

And the special brilliance of the play is that she doesn’t!

The unexpected plot twist is based partly on Jean’s goodness of character, but equally on her arrogantly stated view that what happens among this group of women without men, although of intense personal importance, doesn’t matter at all to anybody in the larger world.   Her salvation:  none other than her fiancé waiting outside to take her away forever in a fine car.

Emily Walton as Miss Jean Wade,Dee Pelletier as Mademoiselle Vernier, Aedin Moloney as Miss Margaret Willoughby and Kate Middleton as Miss Ruby Ridgeway.

Emily Walton, Dee Pelletier, Aedin Moloney and Kate Middleton. Photo: Richard Termine

It’s exciting, and redeeming for the play, that the main character focus shifts:  we’d thought all along that it was Jean but it turns out to be Miss Connor, the fussy deluded “author” who had tried to do Jean in.  Following Jean’s lead, we’d learned to dismiss Miss Connor, to distrust her and to dislike her yet, by the end, she has our full compassion.  It comes as a surprise but this is Miss Connor’s story.   That’s a remarkable feat of characterization for the playwright, and also for Kellie Overbey in the roll of Miss Connor who draws us deeply into this lonely woman’s heart.

Among the beautifully acted roles in this ensemble play, Emily Walton exudes youthful energy and certainty as Jean Wade.  Mary Bacon barely lets you see the cracked heart behind the practiced detachment with which she navigates the teachers’ lounge, and her life.  Dee Pelletier is funny and moving as the French teacher, Mademoiselle Vernier, her isolation compounded by coming from elsewhere.  Kate Middleton conveys the controlled rage of being pushed aside as favorite teacher by Jean, while continuing to do her job.  In a sense all these women have been pushed aside, and continue to do their jobs, and Women Without Men makes us feel the heroism in that.

Alexa Shae Niziak conveys the complexity of Peggy Summers, a talented actress for the school play, with a school girl crush on Jean and – almost a bad seed – irrepressibly transgressive.  Shannon Harrington makes us smile with her seriousness as King John in the school play.

Thanks to the Mint Theater, and to Producing Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, for producing this little known play, and introducing us to the paradoxes in this work by a successful pioneer woman playwright. Hazel Ellis acted for Dublin’s Gate Theatre and, evidently to everyone’s surprise, became the author of two successful plays, Portrait in Marble, about Lord Byron, of 1936, and Women Without Men of 1938 – and no more plays after that.

In Women Without Men, although they may try to evade it, the lot of unmarried women is lonely and sad with friendships among women elusive.  Jean is the lucky one—she has a fiancé to rescue her, so it’s surely not a “feminist” play. But the true test is in the work:  Hazel Ellis has given us a fine and compelling play.

It’s not just “Who knew?” when one sees a superb production of little known works from the past produced by the Mint – it’s “Thank Heavens we know now”!

Women Without Men plays at City Center Stage II, in midtown Manhattan, through March 26, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Jean Lichty at the early feminist NORA, and Todd Gearhart as her husband, Torvald in Bergman's NORA after Ibsen's A Doll's House

Review | Nora | by Ingmar Bergman | After Ibsen’s A Doll’s House | Directed by Austin Pendleton

… a doll’s household … 

Jean Lichty at the early feminist NORA, and Todd Gearhart as her husband, Torvald in Bergman's NORA after Ibsen's A Doll's House

Todd Gearhart as Torvald and Jean Lichty as Nora. Photo Carol Rosegg

In the name of “crystallization,” Bergman’s paring down of Ibsen’s compelling play with its early feminist theme sticks to the plot but gives us fewer ways to know the characters.  It puts major, inner change on fast forward — making for an unconvincing drama.

In trimming down the play, Bergman omits the servants and the three children.  We’re told once that the children are with the nanny but never see Nora with her children, so when, in leaving Thorwald, she abandons her children, any conflict she may have is totally distant.  And how do these people eat?  She doesn’t cook or clean, a small mending job seems beyond her, and no servants appear either:  there’s no sense of a functioning household, although the nature of this doll’s house – and doll’s household — is of central importance.

In eliminating the nanny, Anne-Marie, Bergman has omitted a character with thematic importance in Ibsen’s play.  Anne-Marie had cared for Nora as a child and now tends Nora’s children and, for this employment, had given up her own, illegitimate  daughter to the care of others. Ann-Marie’s story is important enough for Nora to call it a “tragedy.”

Anne-Marie’s story is a thought provoking counterpoint to Nora’s. own story  As a woman of the lower class, under duress of poverty and the stigma of an illegitimate child, Anne-Marie gave up her daughter in order to take on the position of caring for children better placed in society.  Nora gives hers up in order to fulfill her thrust toward freedom and self actualization.  Is one kind of duress more powerful than the other?  More worthy?  More easy to accept?

In another inflection of the theme of motherhood, Nora’s childless friend Christine joins the widowed Nils Krogstad so that his children will have a mother and she will have a purpose in caring for others:  elimination of the character of Anne-Marie severs one leg from this tripod of meanings.

Torvald looses much of his sexist pomposity in Bergman’s version, making him less obnoxious, and more attractive, and more like a man who could pay attention.  Yes, he let Nora down but, as Christine knows, nobody’s perfect including her marginally criminal Krogstad.  But that has no effect on Nora.

Bergman sets the final confrontation between Torvald and Nora in the marital bedroom , a good idea but it’s here awkwardly staged.  Under the onslaught of Nora’s defiant speech – she’s dressed to leave, he’s nude in a super obvious  visualization of his new vulnerability —  this mature man  “covers up his nakedness” like a sinful Adam, wrapping himself in a blanket.  And since he seems like a man who could perhaps learn, Nora’s adamant decision harder than ever to accept.

The upshot is, he looks like a jerk and she seems cuckoo.

Events unfold so fast  in this trimmed version that Nora’s lengthy speech to Torvald at the end, in which she explains that how she must free herself in order to come to know herself, seems ideological — she sounds like she just completed a course on feminism —  rather than being an emanation of her developing character.

Nora, Torvald, Christine and Krogstad are almost always on stage, moving back and to the fore as their scenes are foreground, giving a good sense of the tight link between past and present.  Jean Lichty brings out the flighty responsiveness and also the womanly strength of Nora – she reminded me of Jennifer Jones as Madame Bovary.  Todd Gearhart manages to convey Torvald’s sense of male entitlement with humor and wit.

Jean Lichty as the early feminist Nora and George Morfogen as Dr. Rank, whose in love with her.

Jean Lichty as Nora and George Morfogen as Dr. Rank. Photo Carol Rosegg

Larry Bull is appropriately menacing as Nils Krogstad, who turns gently tender when he recognizes another possibility with Christine Linde, played by Andrea Cirie.  The role of the mortally ill Dr. Rank is shortened in Bergman’s version but George Morfogen provides so rich and touching and totally believable a characterization of the smitten but dignified old man he fascinates and looms large.  I’ve seen him in many roles and never better.   Federick L. and Lise-Lone Marker’s translation  from Swedish finds the fine theatrical balance between generalized modern English and the special way people who know each other well, as all of these characters do, use language to express their connectedness.

NORA plays at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village through December 12, 2015.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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