When asked, “Would you like to go attend a 1930’s comedy of manners at a local community theater?”, the average person’s reaction is most likely going to be somewhere along the lines of, “No, thank you.” In the case of The Women, which opens at The Little Theater of Norfolk this Friday, that would be the exact wrong answer to give.
Although 80 years have passed since the first opening of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women, director Kathy Strouse and her team still feel that the play has something to offer a modern audience, and having spent last night watching their rehearsal and talking to them, I have to agree wholeheartedly.
The Women tells the story of Mary, who finds out that her husband has been cheating on her. Although her mother tells her to ignore the infidelity, her friends’ advice and actions set off a chain of events turning the scandal into something noteworthy in the community, and Mary is forced to confront her relationship issues and her friends head on, and decide what can actually be forgiven in a relationship. It takes place over the course of two years and many different locations. The show highlights how women’s responses were dictated by the time and situation they were living in.
“Women, particularly young women these days, have no idea what they have,” explained Strouse. She went on to say that “although early critics said it wasn’t flattering to women, there are real friendships in the play.”
Strouse has actually appeared in this play twice, once when the NARO was the Actor’s Theater with a walk on role, and the second time when the Riverview was the ODU Playhouse. That time she played Mirriam. Of this particular production, she said, “it has been so delightful. Everybody is so pleasant, and talented, and supportive, and gracious,” comparing the process favorably to her most recent hit, Little Theater of Virginia Beach’s Steel Magnolias.
Having had the chance to work with that ensemble as their lighting designer, I can say my time with them was an amazing experience that I still treasure. She has put together an equally strong team on this one, combining actresses familiar to the Hampton Roads audiences with those who will be new to the viewer, including two different mother and daughter sets in this cast. The Women is a fantastic character showcase, and I could tell from the rehearsal that every single ensemble member has put their all into creating each distinct character.
“A lot of these women have very definite opinions about themselves, but they don’t truly see themselves,” said Strouse. In a world so dominated by the images we put forward in social media, this rings especially true today.
I was able to speak to a few of the cast members as they prepared for their rehearsal last night. When asked what the play meant to or impressed upon them, Mary Henaghan, who plays Mrs. Shapiro, immediately spoke up, “We’ve come a long way since the 1930’s.”
Her daughter, Kate Henaghan, whose main role is the Instructress, but also plays a variety of smaller parts, noted some of the differences between that period and now. “I love the costumes, and the makeup, and the manners were so nice,” she continued, “Most everyone was taught how to do things properly.”
Cynthia Tademy, who plays Maggie, is more into the language, “Being a cinema person, I have both versions of this play. Although the dialogue didn’t feel as witty in the 80’s, it was still bright, and intelligent, and quick,” something she says it feels great as an actor to sink your teeth into.
Cat Gendell, who portrays Sylvia, also mentioned how great it was to work with the rest of the cast. “People were knitting at the read through,” she mentioned, noting how powerfully feminine it was, and a great way to start off a process with so many different types of actresses and characters to explore. As for how the show reflects our times, “It’s so backwards,” Gendell said, noting that “it is fun to figure out the differences.” (We actually talked a good deal more, but I don’t want to spoil any plot for anyone, so I’m going to leave off here with our discussion.)
“I think this is a show that has to have such tremendous respect for the intelligence of this audience,” said Darden Dickerson, who is playing Olga. “If you look at the life of Clare Boothe Luce, she is nothing like Mary. You have to look at the presentation rather than what they are telling you.”
Indeed, Luce was quite a powerful woman, having moved on from playwriting in the 30s (which were also her 30s) to become a war journalist for Life magazine, to a member of the House of Representatives for CT where she was instrumental in the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission. After that she was appointed Ambassador to Italy, then briefly Ambassador to Brazil (she stepped down after 4 days because she didn’t feel the area would be served well by someone who had such a tumultuous appointment- Congress thought she was too conservative). In the 70s and 80s she served on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. She was the first woman ever awarded the Sylvanus Thayer Award from West Point Academy, and a few years before her death she was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor. Prior to her two marriages, she worked for the National Women’s Party (you may have heard of a little movement they had starting in Senacca, NY), and although she grew more conservative over the years, she is considered a good role model by the feminist movement. Part of her legacy includes the Clare Boothe Luce Program, a source of private support for women in science, mathematics, and engineering. Most people will recognize this as a few lifetimes worth of careers – some of us take it as a challenge, or note that we really need to get our lives together. I guess, like in this play, it takes all types.
So, whether you are looking for a story about relationships, a satire depicting different types of women, a story about the different socioeconomic classes from the Great Depression, a feminist manifesto, or just an enjoyable time watching some great characters, you can find it at LTN’s production of The Women. If you particularly enjoy watching 1930’s comedies of manners, go see The Women. If you would like to see a bunch of strong women move 40 pieces of furniture to create 12 different locations, go see LTN’s The Women. And if none of that seems at all interesting to you, well, check your pulse – you may be dead. Then, assuming you aren’t dead, go see The Women.
The Women runs January 8 – 31 at the Little Theatre of Norfolk, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:30pm. Tickets are $18 for regular admission, $15 for students/seniors/military, $9 for 17 and under. Call (757) 627-8551 or purchase online here.