I entered the theatre knowing little of the story about to unfold. I knew very little of Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women, aside from it being all women, that it was a Broadway smash in 1936, and that a film version with Norma Sharer, Joan Crawford, and a pre-Oscar fame Joan Fontaine was in existence.
Review by Matt Downey
Mrs. Mary Haines has recently learned that her husband is having an affair. Faithful and innocent, she finds herself undecided what to do, but friend and gossip queen Sylvia Fowler takes matters into her own hands. Lives unravel and opinions fly until the final scene in what is a highly enjoyable show.
In her program note, director Kathy Strouse welcomes us to enjoy a “fond nostalgia of a different time,” such as manners, etiquette, and the unknown dangers in the luxury of a cigarette. But in her note she also mentions her cast being shocked to learn that at this time “the beating of one’s wife was an acceptable form of humor.” I myself was surprised to learn this, along with other societal restrictions of women that only dissipated from our society as late as the 1970’s. Given last year’s issue of gender inequality in Hollywood paychecks, I found this piece to be dated and yet relevant. Strouse notes that this comedy of manners “shows us a different time, which may make us appreciate our own.” Mission accomplished.
While speaking briefly with Asst. Director Bill Armstrong (one of only four men listed in the program) he noted that with a cast of 20+ women, there was never a single ounce of drama, which he attributes to the director. Following Strouse’s success directing an all woman cast in last falls Steel Magnolias at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach, I came in with high expectations of her work and was not let down. It was clear the cast was enjoying the ride, the mark of excellent leadership. Also, if you missed in the earlier line, this was for women and by (almost) all women. Simply fantastic!
Mary MacDougall is near perfection in mannerisms and authenticity as the plays central character, Mrs. Mary Haines. For the first part of the show I couldn’t tell if she was unsure of herself or if this was a character choice, but very quickly into Act Two I realized it was the text that at times rendered the character as weak or one dimensional. MacDougall takes a dated and weakly written character and brings it to life; my only issue with her was inconsistency in volume as I lost some lines and moments.
Catherine Gendell is both poised and childish as Sylvia Fowler, a wickedly delicious lovechild of Barbara Stanwyck and Kris Jenner. She is almost manic over the gossip and hilarious in facial expression, physical reaction, and timing. Her gossip-fest in the gym was the highlight of Act One, and her cat-fight with the woman who snags her ex-husband was the comedic pinnacle of the show. Gendell performs on the knife’s edge between believability and audacity like a gymnast, and much to my relief never fell off onto the side of camp. I found myself loving how much I hated her. Excellent.
Two characters that nearly steal the show in the second act are sadly seen for only a passing moment in act one: Molly Morneault as Miriam Aarons and Ann Heywood as The Countess De Lage. Heywood is comedic perfection as the ridiculous Countess, and Morneault is cunning and sharp. In silent responses during a painful moment for Mary, Morenault skillfully navigates a character that could have easily been over the top and gives our central character one of her first real friends, and us authenticity. I must also add that Morneault learned this part in about two weeks after stepping into the show. Brava to both ladies. If the writer were living I’d ask her to let us see more of you.
Kristi Meyers is delightfully hateful in the second act as Crystal Allen, the villainess of our story. But in Act One we see her as younger, Meyers playing her somewhere just past innocent and just short of naïve, a choice that I feel added a subtle depth to a prime example of an older theatre stock type. Well done. Also noteworthy was Carolyn Collings as Mary’s mother, who brings out the tired resignation of an older woman and the calming nature of a mother with ease, bringing balance to her daughter and to the story.
Much of the remaining cast is comprised of veterans and newbies. While inexperience shows in some, they change costumes, wigs, and personalities to move between up to four different characters in a madcap marathon. Noteworthy is Rona Hyman, her shifting accents and vocals add punch to her few lines, but it is her silent engagement in every scene that caught my attention. Also, Kimberly Ambrose as the family’s maid brought constant engagement and a falcon-like glare that threw more shade than Nicki Minaj at the VMA’s. These ladies definitely owned their scenes. Overall, a truly superb cast, just please adapt to the audience laughing, we want to hear every word.
The brilliance of Jason Martens’ set design is in its simplicity: a proscenium within a proscenium watched over by two ancient art-deco goddesses on doors flanking each scene. The inner proscenium can be opened, allowing for a different room, or closed to keep all action downstage. The location changes between a bevy of accent items and pieces; beds, couches, even an old school kitchen island. Complimenting this are the properties, designed by John Roberts. I specifically loved the bathtub and the department store dressing rooms. In this simplicity the imagination was freed to fill in the blanks, and while it seemed crowded at times, a fellow patron mentioned a certain air of claustrophobia that reflected a stifling era for women. Whether or not this was intentional, it worked.
Costumes are simple and in period throughout. It is Katharine Given’s work that stands out as the technical highlight, with my one concern being the bob hairstyles completely obscuring some faces when in profile. The gowns and jewels of the final scene make each and everyone shine. You can tell when a woman feels beautiful, and it was clear on the faces of the cast that they felt and knew their beauty. The lighting design by Nina Martin was perfectly functional, but lacks punch. I did love, at intermission and during scene changes, the dull grey of the painted goddesses shone in brilliant silver, as if the varied ordeals of The Women were being watched over by those who had gone before. Sadly, it was the scene changes where I found myself taken out of the story and back into reality. Given the magnitude of scene changes and the number of pieces and people involved, this is seemingly unavoidable. But more than once they seemed clunky and confused, and I do hope they smooth out as the show continues its run.
Strouse mentions in her directors note that this show was “an indulgence” and I agree. This is not the most earth-shattering piece of American theatre, but it is indeed a treat, and I heard many whispered or silent agreements and laughs from the ladies in the audience. I will confess that I felt almost wrong to be reviewing this show as a man, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed it. Ladies; go see it. Gentlemen; get tickets for your lady and take her out – You will most likely enjoy it. Want to really up the ante for date night? Take her out for a drink afterwards, ask for her thoughts, and actually listen. There are many things that our sex, and indeed society, can learn from The Women. Go see it.
The show runs through the end of January. For more info or tickets, click here.