Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Women
at Speakeasy Stage

As they say, everything old is new again. During the first act of the Scott Edmiston's production of The Women, Mary Haines, a wealthy New York socialite, has a conversation with her young daughter about being a woman.

"Women can be lawyers and doctors and pilots," Mary explains to her tomboyish daughter. But, she softly and earnestly explains, she chooses to stay at home and raise her children. Mary begins to explain how other people may not look at it as important, but it is her choice to take care of the domestic duties.

At this point, what I am describing may sound like a vignette from one of those late 1950's black and white instructional videos: "Be Yourself, but Be Your Best Self!" Thankfully, Clare Booth Luce, the playwright, has exceptional wit and observational acumen up her sleeve and is able to turn the scene with a punch line that resonates through 70 years and lands right into 2006.

You see, after Mary Haines has finished telling her daughter about the importance of some mothers staying home and taking care of the housework, her daughter observes smartly, "but, Mom, you don't do any of those things." As the audience begins laughing, the scene suddenly races from the 1930's right into today's political maelstrom of illegal immigration, political correctness and family values.

This week's New Republic has an extended book review of several manifestoes from the front line of "The Mommy Wars," which is the moniker that has been chosen for the latest journalistic and activist battles over the woman's place in society. The reviewer writes:

"This mutual pact of pity and condescension is crosscut with envy. The Working Mother may envy the Stay-at-Home Mother for not having to work, for being fortunate enough to have married a major earner who foots the bills while she has to put up with a dreary commute to a job that cuts her off from her children. Such a mother labors not because she prefers to, but because she has to--she doesn't have the cushy option of sitting around watching Dr. Phil or hosting afternoon playdates. Meanwhile, the Stay-at-Home Mom may envy the Working Mom for her freedom and mobility to associate with fellow adults instead of being stuck indoors staring at the crayon artwork posted on the refrigerator door and listening to infantile prattle until she is about to go out of her mind."

All of these are undercurrents racing through the subtext of Luce's play about the backstabbing social and married lives of New York socialites during the depression era, including the observations by our contemporary pundits that some of the most vociferous defenders of the Stay-At-Home ranks are women who have au pairs and maids.

In this classic American Comedy, Mary Haines, a rock solid member of the in-crowd and played winsomely by Anne Gottlieb, is surrounded/besieged by her circle/cell of friends as she goes through the pain of a family crisis. Her problem is that her marital breakdown, rather than being seen by others as an opportunity to lend support, is instead seen as a blank canvas on which they can scheme, pontificate and project their own agendas and ideas. With a cast of 20 playing about forty characters, all women, we hear just about every side of the story, and the ending is, well, actually a little surprising.

In many places Luce's play still creaks like an East Indiaman cargo ship, but fortunately the play has been constructed well enough comedically to have survived the height of the radical feminist era with most of its punchlines intact. And Scott Edmiston has assembled a wonderful perfect cast to land the punches, (literally in some places.)

Speakeasy's production is paced comedically by the talents of Maureen Keiller as the devilish Sylvia, Kerry Dowling as the matronly Edith, and Mary Klug as the scene stealing Countess de Lage. The bitter is provided by the cynical Nancy Carroll as the author Nancy, (whom one could imagine penning one of the more radical books in the Mommy Wars.) In a nice update of the staging, Edmiston has Nancy sits at a typewriter reciting Booth's clever stage directions and tosses barbs generously into the proceedings.

This would all be fine entertainment on its own, but Luce is aiming higher and expands the universe to include servants, secretaries, hairdressers, notaries, lingerie models, cooks, and chorus girls. A few years ago Phyllis Rose wrote a book called Parallel Lives in which she examined several horrible, high-profile marriages of the Victorian Age. In her introduction she observed that marriage and divorce are not private, but rather public and even political acts. Claire Booth Luce is on to this as she shows the anxiety of not only Mrs. Haines and her immediate family, but also seemingly just about everybody else from New York to Reno.

All of the women in the ensemble, some playing multiple roles, are actresses who have had more than their share of lead roles around Boston and New York. But the credit also goes to Edmiston who has gathered and casted them all to their strengths and allowed us to experience a production which such richness around the edges.

Full Disclosure: My wife is part of this wonderful ensemble of Boston Actresses.

Photo: Sylvia (Maureen Keiller, left) confronts Crystal (Georgia Lyman, right in tub) Photo Credit: Mike Lovett

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