THE WOMEN (EgoPo): An engaging show turns a trifle into a treatise

Geneviève Perrier and Mary Lee Bednarek in THE WOMEN.  Photo by Dave Sarrafian.

Geneviève Perrier and Mary Lee Bednarek in THE WOMEN.
Photo by Dave Sarrafian.

Last year EgoPo’s American Giants Festival season featured male playwrights. This season’s festival honors great female playwrights. THE WOMEN, with its clawing, scratching edge, created a stir in 1936. Clare Boothe Luce said she saw her play as a witty critique of certain malicious denizens of Park Avenue. Artistic director Lane Savadove sees more in it.

Considered bold in the thirties, THE WOMEN is somewhat quaint now. I was curious to see which approach EgoPo Classic Theater would take. Would it be a period revival? Contemporary take? A howling spoof or a wry comment? Post-Feminist? Straight comedy? Savadove made a different choice: A combination that plays the storyline pretty straight while pushing the envelope with an expressionist approach and added complexity.

The first big indication of something different in this production is the lush opening accompanied by strains of violin music. Miles of shining sheets cover the stage. In an indentation in the center, a girl sleeps. If she were lying completely straight and still and didn’t wake up agitated, the scene would almost resemble a luxurious grave. EgoPo has inserted the prelude to initiate a deeper look at women’s lives. Once the story beginsthe remarkable opening scene is never alluded to.

Mary (Melanie Julian), a nice, self-possessed rich lady has a fine husband, children (Courtney Bundens as Little Mary), and a good mother (Cheryl Williams). She lives in a world of wealthy catty bitches, self-involved matrons, and their working class employees, saleswomen, and beauty salon personnel. Men are what these ladies talk about, primp, dress, and compete for. But in this women’s play no man will appear on stage. While the women may say they adore a female friend, they don’t really like women. When Mary’s husband strays, her friend discovers it and leaks the information before giving Mary a heads up. When Mary eventually discovers the truth, her social circle is abuzz.

The cast and production team feature wonderful Philadelphia actresses including professors at Rowan University and elsewhere. The ensemble, composed of Rowan University College of Performing Arts students, ably handles various characters who slip in and out of supporting roles. These women operate as prop movers, scene changers, and as part of the set decoration. They wrap around this theatrical creation, often lined up in a row, barefoot in their little black dresses.

Rebecca Joy, Beatrice Hemmings, Emily Lewis, and Courtney Jarmush

Rebecca Joy, Beatrice Hemmings, Emily Lewis, and Courtney Jarmush in THE WOMEN. Photo by Dave Sarrafian.

Solid acting by all involved makes for an engaging evening: The artful performance by Genevieve Perrier as perma-preggers Edith steals scenes. And interesting takes on their roles by students Kylie Westerbeck and Beatrice Hemmings are notable.

Seeing these women as commodified and powerless, Savadove sets this tight little story in a larger frame. Within the theatricality of an expansive and abstract scenic design (Thom Weaver), he attempts openingit up to expose more emotional depth by employing a kind of reactive chorus. When the ensemble underscores conversational events with studied group reactions, meaning is enhanced — sometimes.

But sometimes monumentalizing important small moments manages to take the edge off them. Key lines have more impact, and are funnier, if spoken simply by one character to another, without outside comment. At times choreographed group movements distract from core situations, as happens, for instance, in a crucial confrontation scene in a fitting room.

There’s a risk in adding material to provoke a larger look at a work. In creating the opening’s added-on underpinning Savadove encourages taking a deeper look at superficial lives. We’re invited to see a treatise in a trifle and swandive into the shallow water of Luce’s comedy.

THE WOMEN is a juicy tactical capitulation story. Mary, the fine lady, and “exception to us all” according to her friends, will let go of “nice” and get down and dirty like everyone else to compete and get her man. Mary may have been the remote role model for scriptwriter Jim Jacob’s Sandy character in Grease, a nice girl who will turn a little bit bad to get her man.

[The Latvian Society, 7th and Spring Garden Streets]  March 3-20, 2016; EgoPo.org

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.