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Theatre in Review: Women Without Men (Mint Theater Company/City Center Stage II)

Mary Bacon, Emily Walton. Photo: Richard Termine

How does the Mint do it? Only a couple of years after it resurrected the work of the forgotten Irish playwright Teresa Deevy, the company presents Women Without Men, by Hazel Ellis, a contemporary of Deevy's, also seemingly lost to history. (Deevy was associated with the Abbey Theatre, while Ellis was produced at the Gate.) And, once again, we have to ask: Who is Hazel Ellis? Why did we not know her? Why has this information been kept from us?

I admit I approached Women Without Men with a certain unease; the title sounds like a Warner Brothers B picture of the '30s, starring Ann Dvorak and Bonita Granville, and the setting, the faculty lounge of a Dublin girls school, makes one fear another creakily repressed drama of lesbian passion, like Mäedchen in Uniform or The Children's Hour. But Ellis' play, first produced in 1938, is nothing of the kind; it is a sharply observant comedy-drama filled with crackling ironies, a craftily worked-out mystery, and an astringently unsentimental point of view.

The women who make up the school's faculty have signed on to a regimen that, at times, seems only marginally better than house arrest. They are made to live on campus, and an unlucky few must share bedrooms. Heat and hot water are sometime things, and there is no wireless to bring them news or entertainment. They get one half-day off a week; otherwise, their only free time occurs on school holidays. The extremely helpful program notes point out that the recently established Irish Constitution had enshrined the role of women as homemakers, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to maintain careers; these Women Without Men accept their lot because they have virtually no other choice.

Well, perhaps "accept" isn't the right word. Living lives of perpetual dissatisfaction in too-close quarters, they pass the time by taking little bites out of each other's souls. For example, Miss Ridgeway, one of the younger teachers, and something of a flirt, enters the lounge, ready to indulge in a little preening. "My birthday fell last week, and about half the junior school sent me presents. Wasn't that really rather sweet?" "By the way," asks Miss Strong, her colleague, "how they did they know it was your birthday?" Mary Bacon, as Miss Strong, delivers the line so casually that you don't even see the knife going in, but, from the menacingly sour expression on the face of Kate Middleton, as Miss Ridgeway, you know that it has landed right next to the bone.

And so it goes: Mademoiselle Vernier makes tea and cookies for the others, only to be reprimanded for cluttering up the room with her knitting. The others treat her as a member of an exotic tribe rather than the country next door, save one; when she quotes Yeats, one of them cries out, "Stop! Stop! How you destroy poetry so!" When the constant small-mindedness wears her down, the tiny, acidic Miss Willoughby exclaims, "How foreigners revel in scenes!"

Then again, Miss Willoughby constantly complains about her roommate, Miss Ridgeway, descrying the latter's penchant for leaving her clothes all over; the two maintain a long-running, low-level war of attrition. And there is the icy, imperious Miss Connor, looking down on the rest from some lofty OIympian peak where only aesthetes dwell; she has spent the last twenty years writing a book about "beautiful acts," and is fond of telling the others, "None of you understands beauty but me." Maybe not, but they understand her brusque manner and the way she uses the house rules against them. We don't learn all that much about the school's curriculum, but one thing seems certain: These ladies have advanced degrees in passive aggression.

Into this den of cats steps Jean Wade, fresh-faced, newly graduated, and eager to do her pupils some good. Naturally, the others take an instant dislike to her. The major exception is Miss Strong, who, maintaining an air of cool detachment, advises Jean to "wrap yourself in the armor of an inward feeling of superiority." It doesn't help Jean's case that many students take a shine to her, or that she has a boyfriend whom she has declined to marry right away, fearing that "it's so dull to be settled down." Soon, little tendrils of jealousy have spread throughout the lounge, threatening to strangle her before the first term is over.

Ellis documents every calculated slight and murmured insult with clinical accuracy, laying out a complex network of rivalries, resentments, and acts of petty revenge. So skillfully does she go about her work that it isn't until the end of Act I, when an unspeakably cruel act of vandalism sends shock waves through the faculty, that we realize how much tension has been quietly established. Thanks to a certain piece of circumstantial evidence, Jean is unjustly accused of the crime -- but if she didn't do it, who did, and why?

Ellis was gifted with a remarkably mature vision, allowing her to capture her characters in all their pettiness while deftly, unsentimentally laying bare the social dilemma that entraps them. One of them was born to a wealthy family, but failed to make a splendid marriage before the money ran out. Another works all the time, taking extra jobs during the holidays, to support a mother and invalid sister. Some of the others can't quite account for the many years they have allowed to slip away. For her part, Jean is no starry-eyed ingénue; her kindness to her fellow teachers is rooted in the certainty that their grievances don't really matter, a fact that galls the others to no end. She also has the nerve to speak the truth, telling them, "We are doing it to ourselves, forging the weapons for our own agonies." It's no wonder they want to get rid of her.

Jenn Thompson's meticulous production is anchored by three exceptionally fine performances: Kellie Overbey's Miss Connor is one of her finest creations, a proud creature in drab tweed suits and almost unbearably sensible shoes, clutching her manuscript and insisting that "glory and radiance are waiting for me soon." Behind her impassive exterior is a woman hanging on to her little life by her fingernails; such is the frosty nature of her heart that, after her maliciousness toward Jean is exposed, Jean's forgiveness proves more agonizing than any punishment. Emily Walton's Jean is a perfectly judged portrait of a good-hearted idealist who is nobody's fool; she has an especially fine bit when she realizes the moment when she might have befriended Miss Connor, without realizing, but fumbled it. Bacon is a constantly compelling presence as the enigmatic Miss Strong, who survives by ignoring the others, yet can't help getting caught up in the case against Jean. (She is also crisply amusing when reading from the composition of a particularly unpromising student: "Big Ben is another name for Ben Jonson. He was a friend of William Shakespeare, popularly known as Little Willie.")

There is also finely modulated work from Dee Pelletier as Mademoiselle Vernier, whose French manners are forever putting the others on edge; Joyce Cohen as Miss Newcome, the headmistress, who treats the others as erring daughters; Aedin Moloney's Miss Willoughby, her face a mask of woe as she silently records each injustice done to her; and Amelia White as the blunt, unflappable school nurse.

Vicki R. Davis' teachers' lounge setting has the right institutional air, yet is inviting enough to make us understand why the women prefer it to their drab, chilly little rooms; it is illuminated with a series of subtle lamplit washes by Traci Klainer Polimeni. Martha Hally's costumes are among her best, working a relatively limited range of tweed, wool, and cotton separates to give each character a distinct look; there are several amusing touches, for example, when Mademoiselle Vernier appears wearing a scarf that is identical to the rug we have seen her knitting earlier. The wigs and hair designs by Robert-Charles Vallance are also period perfect. Jane Shaw's sound design includes such evocative effects as a piano etude merged with the sound of a metronome and girls singing their school song.

Ellis wrote only two plays before retiring to marriage and motherhood; one can't help feeling that a fine talent was cut off too soon. Still, this production shows the Mint doing what it does best: finding long-lost works that remain remarkably stageworthy today. There's been much talk about the very real lack of opportunities for new women playwrights in today's theatre. Productions like this cast a light on the fine women talents of the past, bringing them into today's theatrical conversation. That's important work, too. -- David Barbour

(25 February 2016)

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