Saturday, February 27, 2016

Women Without Men

Playwright Hazel Ellis seems to have had a low opinion of women, with an even lower opinion of powerless women stuck together in lives harshly circumscribed by need. Premiering in Ireland in 1938, Ellis's Women Without Men takes place in the teacher's sitting room of Malyn Park, a private girls' school where teachers get one afternoon off each week and coal is in short supply even in the frigid depths of winter. The women are a varied bunch: the silly Miss Ridgeway, the stern Miss Connor, the colorful Mademoiselle Vernier, the bitter Miss Willoughby, and the closed-off Miss Strong. But they have one important thing in common: they need these jobs desperately. (It is interesting that Ellis chose the title Women Without Men when Women Without Money might have been more apropos.)

Emily Walton, Dee Pelletier, Aedin Maloney, and Kate Middleton
Photo: Richard Termine
So, the teachers bicker and plot and complain. After years together, their nerves are shot, and they are all easily annoyed by one another. They fight like the trapped people they are, jostling for space and quiet and even hot water.

Enter the idealistic Miss Wade, pretty, well-dressed, and energetic. She is teaching not due to economic need but because she wants to. In fact, she has delayed marrying her beau Jack because of her desire to accomplish something in the world. Miss Wade clearly perceives herself as open and nice and understanding, but, like all humans, she has flaws. Perhaps the biggest one is not realizing that, as someone who has options, she will never be one of, or even truly understand, the women around her.

Ellis's writing is subtle and smart, and she knows that humans are not heroes or villains but failable and needy. As she vividly delineates the way that need shrinks people's souls, she is sometimes, perhaps, overly bleak. Would none of the women manage to make a friendship with at least one other person? Would they all be quite that catty quite that often?

The plot, such as it is, includes some jockeying for position and a small mystery, but the show is really about the emotions, dreams, and disappointments of the women of Malyn Park, and that's more than enough. Women Without Men never flags, and it is sad to know that Hazel Ellis never wrote another play.

The production at The Mint is up to the usual high standards. Jenn Thompson provides smooth direction, and the cast is strong: Mary Bacon, Joyce Cohen, Shannon Harrington, Kate Middleton, Aedin Moloney, Alexa Shae Niziak, Kellie Overbey, Dee Pelletier, Beatrice Tulchin, Emily Walton, and Amelia White. The set, by Vicki R. Davis, is beautiful; until I realized how cold it was in that room, I was ready to move in. Martha Hally's costumes give us much information about each woman's taste, financial circumstances, and personality and are often quite attractive. Jane Shaw's sound design makes real the world outside the sitting room. The wigs are not as successful. In a couple of cases, they overwhelm the actresses wearing them.

Thanks yet again to the Mint for bringing back to life unfairly neglected plays in strong productions!

Wendy Caster
(2nd row; press ticket)

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