Arts & Culture » Theater

Flabby Women

Awkward set and staging undermine strong performances


With 25 actresses on the front lines, the Alpha Players' production of Clare Booth Luce's The Women was a battle of unwieldy set versus intriguing costumes. Solid performances by Kay Love and Linda Walsh Ryan improved this evening of community theater, and the curtain call -- with women filling the stage -- reflected the enormous amount of people-power pumped into the show.

Certainly tremendous effort went into building the two turntables and two rolling units used to create the ten different locations called for in the play. Unfortunately, the design sliced the large, deep stage into cramped, nearly unusable spaces for each scene. Actors had to move awkwardly around furniture and concentrate on not tripping over stage braces and uneven floor surfaces. (They also had to avoid falling candlesticks and door trim, but in all likelihood those problems were taken care of after opening night.) Part of the fault lies with Luce's script -- she seems to have been writing for the movies and not the stage (36 characters, multiple locations, twelve scenes). But had a simpler set design been chosen, one that allowed us to use our imaginations (what theater does best) instead of trying to re-create ten different locations realistically (what film does best), everyone would have benefited.

What this production needed most was a director who could trim the script (the show began at 8 p.m. and ended at 11:10 p.m.), manage the set changes and give the actors more guidance. Too many moments of action and reaction were missed -- the characters seemed to be rehearsed instead of real. For satire to work, we have to believe that these people really exist in the world of the play, not that they're actors. In addition, the staging was often awkward and confusing: Women were stranded in positions where they couldn't be seen while delivering their lines, or upstaged by irrelevant actions. For example, an excellent portrayal of the Nurse by Rhonda Cropp was damaged by her having to deliver a powerful speech with her back to the audience. A potentially humorous scene with Crystal (Lori Gibson) lost its power because the bathtub and shower curtain were placed so that the right side of the audience couldn't see her face.

Ah, but then there are the costumes, lovingly rendered by Nancy Crouse. The play begins in 1936 and follows Mary Haines and her friends through two years of cheating spouses, divorces, births and reunions. Crouse has delivered clothes reflecting the fashion options of the time and the various types (and stereotypes) of women: the mannish writer in slacks; young, naïve characters in pinks, beiges and bows; the man-stealing vixen in lingerielike black and lace. From the maids to the society matrons, Crouse insightfully clothes them all. The two main characters, sweet and steady Haines (Love) and power-hungry opportunist Sylvia Fowler (Ryan) contrasted appropriately in conservative and flashy outfits. But it was more than the clothes that made Love and Ryan stand out -- they brought energy and believability to their scenes.

Luce's play attempts to satirize the superficial "society women" of her time. One small scene illustrated the production's potential: Near the end of Act 1, two servants sit in the kitchen, drinking coffee and discussing the events of the day. Luce cleverly reveals that Mr. and Mrs. Haines are divorcing by having the maid report their dialogue. As Maggie, reacting to the news, Colleen Heneghan was completely natural, taking in the day's events and dispensing common-sense solutions. Here both Luce's satire and Heneghan's acting were unforced, honest and effective. But through most of the play, Luce's attempts to critique society ended up skewering women as their own worst enemy while pointing to men as blameless and the only true goal of a woman's life. "A woman is compromised the day she's born," one character sighs, and this mopey attitude undercuts much of what could be interesting in the script.

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