Saturday, April 2, 2016

Theater Review: ‘Women Without Men,’ From the Mint Theater, NYC

Imagine the viperish ladies of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women confined to the school in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour and you might get an idea of the frustrations and cattiness unleashed in Women Without Men, which concluded its two-month run at New York’s Mint Theater last weekend.

This 1938 dramedy of fierce wit and refusal to settle for easy characterizations came from Hazel Ellis, who, having made her name as an actress with the Gate Theatre in Dublin, turned to writing two critically acclaimed plays of her own in the 1930s. All the more regrettable, then, that this second one would be her last, the result of her decision to forsake writing for matrimony and motherhood. 

All the more power, too, to the Mint Theater for giving the play—and its juicy parts for an all-female cast of 11—its New York premiere, as part of its mission to spotlight unjustly neglected vintage works.

Unlike most Irish schools, which after separation from Britain were largely run by the Roman Catholic Church, Malyn Park in the play, like the one Ellis attended growing up, is a privately operated Protestant boarding school for girls. It is, then, doubly insular—not just gender-based but operated by a religious minority in a country making its way gingerly out of the enormous British shadow, narrowing all the more the career and personal options of its faculty.

That atmosphere of toxic frustration explodes with new faculty arrival Jean Wade (played by Emily Walton). While her youth, enthusiasm and idealism establish instant rapport with her young charges, they also bring to the surface tensions among her colleagues. Though ranging in age from very young to late middle-aged, they have all grown scarred and cynical about their profession, their environment and their limited emotional involvements (none are married or with children). The storm outside their seemingly cozy faculty room also symbolizes what takes place as they interact with each other

We quickly understand why female students nickname this “The Tyrants’ Den” when the manuscript of one teacher—whose literary ambition is indirectly proportional to her talent—is defaced. Lies and destroyed reputations become the fruit of jealousy and petty quarrels over trifles. Or, in the words of one faculty veteran teacher, Miss Strong (played by Mary Bacon), who has maintained a smidgen of sanity by remaining coolly aloof and neutral: “What else would you expect? A small group of women all cooped up together with no release from each other save in the privacy of our bedrooms. Women brought together not by choice, not by liking, but by the necessity of earning our living.”

It was Ms. Ellis’ considerable skill that gave each of these lives fading into the Celtic twilight their own individuality, and Jenn Thompson’s adeptness that allowed each member of this very fine ensemble to shine. Kellie Overbey was appropriately bitter and brittle as Miss Wade’s principal faculty adversary, Miss Connor. Dee Pelletier gave pungency to the most conspicuous fish out of water among the faculty, the lone foreigner, Mademoiselle Vernier. Kate Middleton and Aedin Moloney brought comic gusto to the roles of the young, flighty Ruby Ridgeway and her older, more staid roommate, Miss Willoughby.

Especially good are Miss Walton and Miss Bacon, depicting a subtle relationship filled with strong undercurrents—two women that, in the end, may be less friends than allies linked by mutual disdain for this breeding ground of insecurity, false accusation, self-sacrifice and gratitude that deteriorates into buried resentment.

Women Without Men is only the latest example of how, whether by conscious design or merely inclination, the Mint Theater has carved out an alternative path from much of New York theater. While the last half-dozen years have brought bitter complaints about female underrepresentation in the New York theater world, the Mint has made it a point to unearth fine plays by Ellis, fellow Irishwoman Teresa Deavy, Susan Glaspell, Martha Gellhorn and Rachel Crothers. In opening a window into the past, it has shown how to carve a new path into the future.

This production also marked the Mint’s transfer from its longtime West 43rd Street home to a new venue, at City Center 12 blocks up in Manhattan. The move was the product of necessity: Midtown’s real estate boom, which resulted in the sale of the 43rd Street building twice in three years. Time will tell whether or not the Mint has truly found a home congenial to its staging and administrative needs. (After leaving its longtime St. Mark’s Place home, another Off-Broadway company, the Pearl Theatre Company, stayed in City Center for only three years before decamping to another space on West 42nd Street.) Nevertheless, the increased leg room in the aisles and unobstructed sight lines already spell an improvement for the Mint’s small but devoted tribe of fans in City Center.

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