Friday, February 26, 2016

After 77 Years, Mint Theater Revives WOMEN WITHOUT MEN

L-R: Emily Walton, Dee Pelletier, Aedin Moloney, and Kate Middleton in WOMEN WITHOUT MEN.  Photo by Richard Termine.
When Madeline Albright claimed that there’s a special place in Hell reserved for women who don’t support other women, she surely didn’t have the denizens of the teachers’ lounge at Malyn Park Private School in mind – but she very well could have.  For it is there that the teachers in Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men (all of whom are women at the exclusive girls boarding school in Ireland in the 1930s) allow their most petty jealousies to gain the better of them – and ultimately come to bear the inevitable consequences of their actions.

None of the women, other than the newest member of the faculty, Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton), is married or engaged, or likely ever to get married or even have a suitor.  (Ruby is the exception: she has a boyfriend and fully expects to marry him some day, just not right away.)  Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey) is constrained by the fact that she must care for her aging mother and invalid sister, providing her with no real opportunity to create a family of her own.  She has channeled whatever creative energies she might have had into the writing of a a history of “beautiful acts” through the ages, annoying her contemporaries no end with her self-aggrandizing references to her book, The entire experience has left her unpleasant, officious and friendless.

Madamoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier) was born into a somewhat higher estate than the others, which meant that most men weren’t good enough for her but, when her grandfather lost all the family’s wealth (and with it their social standing and Madamoiselle’s dowry), it turned out that maybe it really was she who wasn’t good enough for most men.  Nor do marriage prospects for Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon) or Miss Margaret Willoughby (Aedin Moloney) seem any brighter.

Ruby and Margaret are forced to share living quarters which serves as a continuing irritant to both of them.  Ruby is well-liked by the students (if not by her fellow-teachers) but since Jean arrived, Jean appears to be replacing Ruby in the students’ affections, much to Ruby’s consternation.  Margaret resents the fact that Mademoiselle granted permission to one of her students to abstain from Margaret’s class walk without first clearing it with Margaret.  Miss Connors and Mademoiselle are at loggerheads over the proper use of the teachers’ lounge.  Miss Connors and Jean are at cross-purposes when it comes to the disciplining of a student, the use of space for a play rehearsal rather than tutoring, and the importance, or lack thereof, of participation in an elocution contest.  Somehow, Marjorie manages to maintain her distance and stay above it all.

Women Without Men was first produced in 1938 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin but, despite receiving positive reviews from both critics and audiences alike has not been revived since.  Now that oversight is being corrected with a wonderful revival  - indeed, the long-overdue American premiere! - of the long lost play currently being staged by the Mint Theater Company at New York City Center Stage II on West 55th Street in midtown Manhattan.

This, of course, is what the Mint Theater Company is justifiably noted for: unearthing worthwhile forgotten works and staging them with great aplomb (with ostensibly considerable emphasis on the works of forgotten female dramatists).  The lost plays by women that it staged in the past included A Little Journey by Rachel Crothers and Rutherford & Son by Githa Sowerby (among others), both of which proved to be excellent productions.  Nor has the Mint lost its magic touch: this production of Hazel Ellis’s Women Without Men clearly deserves a place in that panoply of Mint successes.

Women Without Men is something of a whodunit but, unlike most whodunits, in which one or more murders would seem to be de rigueur, Ms Ellis predicates her mystery on what superficially would seem to be a far more trivial crime: the wanton destruction of Miss Connor’s nearly complete magnum opus, that history of “beautiful acts” through the ages.  No one is murdered or abducted – there is not even a jewel heist – but Miss Connor has devoted her life to writing her book and for someone to have taken it from her in this manner does appear to have been the most dastardly of acts.

No one really wished Miss Connor ill, but then no one really wished her well either, so it would seem that virtually anyone might have perpetrated the crime.  Suspicion quickly falls on Jean, however, and when Miss Connors discovers a piece of Jean’s broken brooch beneath her shredded manuscript, the case against Jean grows even stronger.

In addition to the six teachers, the cast includes the school’s Headmistress, Mrs. Newcome (Joyce Cohen), the school’s Matron (Amelia White), and three of the school’s students (Beatrice Tulchin, Shannon Harrington, and Alexa Shae Niziak).  The entire ensemble cast is just terrific, so good that it is simply impossible to single any one out.  Suffice it to say that the entire production is first-rate, in no small measure due to its first-rate cast.

But due as well to all the other women involved in this production since, in terms of direction and design, it is also an all-woman production: Jenn Thompson has done a fine job of directing while Vicki R. Davis (sets), Martha Halley (costumes), Traci Klainer Polimeni (lights) and Jane Shaw (sound) all deserve plaudits for their respective contributions.
Indeed, to paraphrase Madeline Albright, if there is a special place in Heaven reserved for women who work so well together to provide us all with such a fine theatrical experience, these women can all start adjusting their wings.

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