Hell Hath No Fury Like “The Women”
by Jan Nargi
October 16, 2006
Written by Clare Boothe Luce; directed by Scott Edmiston; set design by Brynna Bloomfield; costume design by Gail Astrid Buckley; lighting design by Scott Clyve; original music and sound design by Dewey Dellay; hair and make-up design by Jason Allen
Featured cast in order of appearance:
Nancy Blake, Nancy E. Carroll
Peggy Day, Aimee Doherty
Edith Potter, Kerry A. Dowling
Sylvia Fowler, Maureen Keiller
Mary Haines, Anne Gottlieb
Jane, Elizabeth Hayes
Countess de Lage, Mary Klug
Olga/Lucy/Dowager, Ellen Colton
Miriam Aarons, Sonya Raye
Little Mary, Sophie Rich
Mrs. Morehead, Alice Duffy
Crystal Allen, Georgia Lyman
Maggie/Nurse, Sandra Heffley
Performances: Now through October 21
Box Office: 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com
The press kit for the SpeakEasy Stage’s current revival of “The Women” included a bottle of Jungle Red nail polish to symbolize the catty bloodletting that was about to take place in Boston’s South End that afternoon. It should have included a DVD of the 1939 film adaptation, as well, for that George Cukor classic contained all the fresh, frothy and fast-paced frivolity that is seen only sporadically in this smart but intermittently funny production.
You can’t argue with the cast that director Scott Edmiston has assembled to give voice to Clare Booth Luce’s sometimes scathing, sometimes penetrating early feminist viewpoints. A bevy of Boston’s best actresses grapple with infidelity, gossip, and each other while also alternately disparaging and exalting their societal roles as wives, women, friends and mothers.
Each in her own turn is a standout. Nancy E. Carroll gets Luce’s autobiographical author Nancy Blake just right with her deadpan delivery and self-effacing sardonic humor. Maureen Keiller is the deliciously decadent Sylvia Fowler who licks her chops with every bit of dirt she dishes. Anne Gottlieb is a multi-faceted and totally sympathetic Mary Haines, the much put upon housewife whose perfect little white picket world is shaken when word of her husband’s well known philandering gets back to her via the beauty shop hotline. And Georgia Lyman (a dead ringer for Broadways’ Rachel York) as the beautiful but conniving other woman Crystal Allen gives a wickedly gleeful breakout performance that redefines the term spoiled brat.
It’s not the women who bog down “The Women.” It’s the nagging underlying message that men just can’t help themselves when they cheat that grates on the nerves. A lot of Luce’s snappy dialog was, and still is, forward thinking. One-liners include “No one ever misses a clever woman” and “I love you, Mother, but I bet Daddy has more fun than you.” But there seems to be a disturbing anti-feminist moral to the story. That is, no matter how big a skunk the husband is, it’s the woman’s responsibility to make the marriage work.
Happily, Luce balances this 1936 social ethic with pointed self-mockery and incisive wit. Her pampered wives may accept financial dependence on men in exchange for their dignity, but their frustrations at themselves and their situations come out in clever repartee and back-biting excesses that this SpeakEasy cast handles with deft aplomb.
The first act gets off to a bit of slow start, primarily because it’s an awkward blend of expository pathos and jarring humor. The second act takes off like a rocket, however, ignited by the de rigeur cat fight that seems to unleash everyone’s inner bitch. The gloves come off and the pace picks up to delightful screwball farce. At last the actresses are enjoying themselves, and it is here that “The Women” is at its tantalizing best.
The huge supporting cast is stellar. Aimee Doherty is endearing as the bubbly romantic, Peggy Day. Kerry A. Dowling is a hoot as the wise-cracking, and interminably pregnant, Edith Potter. Elizabeth Hayes and Sandra Heffley are the comical downstairs duo whose hard knock wisdom could teach their upstairs counterparts a life lesson or two. Ellen Colton does triple duty as the hard-boiled manicurist Olga, the hard-boiled Reno ranch owner Lucy, and the hard-boiled unnamed Dowager. Sophie Rich, who was so winning as Little Girl in the New Rep’s production of “Ragtime” last season, is equally affecting here as Mary’s wise-for-her-years daughter, Little Mary. Alice Duffy makes Mary’s mother, Mrs. Morehead, a droll delight, and Sonya Raye as frequently divorced Miriam Aarons is a joyful sparring partner to any and all comers.
The knockout performance, though, is given by Mary Klug as the aging but ageless Countess de Lage. A cross between Billie Burke, Gracie Allen and Spring Byington, she is splendidly ditzy and warmly appealing as she wistfully expounds “tousjours l’amour” and amiably recalls the string of handsome young men she has managed to coral in her stable through, yeah, her many years of romance.
Warts and all, “The Women” is an interesting look back at the manners and mores of a time when emancipation didn’t necessarily mean independence. While some of its attitudes seem dated and disquieting, its quirky celebration of the emerging female spirit is tart, taut, and timeless.
Jan Nargi is owner and creative director of JMN Publications, a marketing and public relations firm based in Boston, Mass. She provides consultation, communications, and writing services to clients in the health care, entertainment, financial, retail, manufacturing, non-profit, and sports industries. As a freelance writer, Jan has had hundreds of articles published in business and high-tech magazines. Theatrically, she has reviewed, written, directed, acted, produced, sung, danced, managed publicity, pounded nails, and designed lighting and sets. Jan has even acted in the occasional B-movie, playing a zombie, a psycho shrink, and a clueless news reporter. You may visit her on the web at www.jmnpublications.com.