Midland Center for the Arts’ Center Stage offers up a fresh take on the 1936 classic comedy The Women. While much ado is made of The Women having an all-female cast and production team, don’t enter the theater expecting it to pass the Bechdel test. In fact, author Clare Boothe Luce takes such a dim view of women and female friendships that one might label her a misogynist were it not for her almost equally damning view of men.
We open on four wealthy friends playing bridge and gossiping about the secrets (and not-so-secrets) of their social circle. Sylvia (Natalie Slawnyk) is an elegant and overbearing chain smoker who delights in the latest fashions and the latest scandals. Equally catty is Edith (Sara Gochenour), a brash and perennially pregnant socialite. Nancy (Jean Ciampi) is a single, cynical, and witty author, and Peggy (Grace McLaughlin) is a timid newlywed with money troubles. Rounding out the group is Mary (Megan Applegate), who is the picture of 1930’s domestic bliss - until she discovers that Steven, her husband of 12 years has been having an affair with a lower-class sales girl named Crystal (Lauren Jackson). Humiliated, hurt, and goaded on by her friends (who don’t have her best interests at heart), Mary confronts her husband about the affair and eventually asks for a divorce. While she may have been hoping that Steven would come running back, he instead runs straight into the arms of his other woman, marrying Crystal the day after the divorce is final; Mary also realizes that Sylvia has been a toxic friend all along and they part ways with a bang. After a 2-year time jump, we find Crystal unhappily married to Steven while maintaining a tenuous friendship with Sylvia. Mary, meanwhile, has not remarried and instead focuses on her children and her remaining friendships plus newcomer Miriam (Keara Dixon). When she finds out a choice bit of gossip that may undermine her rival Crystal, Mary has to decide whether the high road is worth travelling if she travels it alone.
With 6 principals and 18 featured actresses (many playing multiple roles), “The Women” has a full cast with a lot going on. First off, Applegate is absolutely fabulous as Mary, grounding her in wisdom and gravitas, and drawing tears on several occasions. Slawnyk is the perfect foil, zany and madcap - while I think she may have lost a little bit of the sinister nature of her character, she absolutely nailed the comedic bits and was so much fun to watch. Also excellent was Gochenour’s Edith, who delivered all of her lines with gusto and seemed at home on the stage. Half of this large cast is new to Center Stage, and they each bring something unique to their featured roles. Standouts are definitely Mary Anne Tessin as fabulous multiple divorcee The Countess, and Natalie Lodicobond and Leah Markowitz as gossipy servants in a really excellent scene.
While the plot is pretty straightforward, it hasn’t necessarily aged well. In 1936, divorce was scandalous, the average age of marriage was 21, and women had only had the right to vote for 16 years. Wealthy households had live-in servants, and couples still held very traditional roles in the home. To try to take this play outside of its historical context seems impossible, and to look at this show within a feminist context (as seems to be director Meagan Eager’s intent) is very difficult when all of the characters spend their time tearing each other down over men. I desperately needed more Nancy as a palate cleanse, but unfortunately this Hepburn-esque character vanishes after the first scene and only comes back near the end of the play.
Another interesting character that was never fully fleshed out was Crystal, the social climbing Jezebel. It is implied that she is gold digging Mary’s husband, but we never really get to see her as a working class woman or hear her struggles living in the Depression-era. Instead she remains a one-dimensional baddie with no redeeming qualities at all - much like the rest of these women in Luce’s upper class New York. The class struggles and inherent issues with wealthy white women complaining to poor servants while drenched in jewels seemed to take a back seat, and I think this theme could have been further explored even given the constrictions of the script. I would have loved to see additions of working class characters into more scenes (not just eavesdropping at doors), and then really emphasizing those moments when they got to tell their own stories, such as a heartbreaking little moment with a nurse played by Isis Simpson-Mersha that missed the mark a little due to blocking and playing the scene for laughs.
Moving on to the production aspects of the show, the set itself is a two-story house that has been cleverly built to disguise several other scenes with moving pieces. While the design of this set (by Eager and Evan Lewis) is excellent, and allowed for whip-quick scene changes, the decorating was a little bland and not really in keeping with the time period. Costumes by the team of Karen Brecht, Karen Harner, Mary Rita Johnson, Terri Robinson, and Kristen Sanborn were a mammoth undertaking; with such a large cast and several changes it’s understandable that costuming was a little uneven, particularly in scenes where clothes are described incorrectly. Hair and makeup by Kailey Klingbiel and Sarah Haynes were mostly appropriate and attractive, although some wigs were distracting and seemed unnecessary. Props were by Darby and Jerry Gwisdala, Sound was by L’Oreal Hartwell, and Lighting was by Bailey Banks.
There were some blocking details that were overlooked - a baby allegedly breastfeeding but not even near a breast, for example, or a cigarette constantly being flicked over furniture and clothes without a reaction by actors. Several scenes could have benefitted from some practical effects or sound effects to flesh out the space, especially a bathtub scene. Some actors also struggled with volume and timing of jokes for maximum effect.
That’s not to say that the play is without its charms. Despite a 3-hour run time (including intermission), the play cracks along at a nice pace thanks to Eager’s firm directorial hand. The scenes that work really work - I was laughing through the whole show, and the trademark 30’s wit is on full display here. As with all classic “frenemies” plots, the show is at its strongest when characters are purely delighting in being wicked. With some excellent performances and a lot of new faces, “The Women” may not be a jaunty feminist romp but it is a fun and entertaining evening of theatre. “The Women” runs in the Little Theatre at the Midland Center for the Arts February 16-24, tickets are available at mcfta.org and are $20 for adults, $16 for students.