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That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Noted as a journalist, critic, activist, suffragette, and even an actress, the adventurous Rebecca West, who helped redefine the role of women in the 20th century, is now the subject of a new one-woman play by Carl Rollyson, Anne Bobby, and Helen Macleod. It's called That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers, and it's now playing at manhattantheatresource through March 13.

The title refers to how she believes the wife of her longtime lover (and the father of her only son) H.G. Wells might have referred to her. But it could just as easily apply to the public at large, who might be aware of West's writing and other work but don't acknowledge her as a figure of particular importance to their current lives. (Don't many public figures end up as an historical footnote?)

Bobby stars in the play as the irrepressible West (born Cicely Isabel Fairfield in London in 1892), just before her death at age 90, looking back on her lifetime of impressive achievements. Wells plays an important role in her story, yes, but the writing of her landmark investigation of Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, covering the Nuremberg trials, and her romantic dalliances (some with men as famous as Charlie Chaplin) are never given short shrift.

These connections with particularly famous people or noteworthy events allow the authors their best opportunities at finding dramatic "in roads" to West's life. As she explains at one point, she viewed writing a sort of "permanent condition," and that challenges the creators to fashion a compelling dramatic figure from someone who dwelled upon, lived through, and is remembered by primarily the written word. That challenge is only occasionally met here with success.

When that happens, That Woman is usually at its best. Bobby's compelling recitation of West's desperate letters to Wells conveys the woman's feelings very powerfully, and another sequence, in which West quickly runs through a number of examples of her early criticism, also illuminate West the woman through West the writer. Yet, later in the play, when Bobby stands onstage and reads a lengthy passage from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the character development grinds to a halt; we're learning little new about her from her writing, so the moment - regardless of the writing's greater importance - feels extraneous.

Trying to determine what information the audience needs and what it probably should hear is very much a balancing act for any playwright, and it seems as if the creators of That Woman are still struggling to find the proper ratio. In many ways, they've crafted the show just right emotionally, allowing plenty of laughs to balance out West's rough edges and more serious moments to present her as a real person. Fleshing out the details to make the play more involving dramatically may take some time, but is an eminently achievable goal.

Bobby's performance helps a great deal - it's painstakingly detailed and vibrantly spirited, a fine portrait of a woman demanding her say about anything and everything. Her aging over the course of the play is also beautifully handled; though Bobby's costume is little more than a simple black dress (no costume designer is credited), her handling of a number of different shawls she adds to her costume seems to age her 20 or 40 years in the blink of an eye.

Bobby is sometimes overshadowed by the projections on an upstage display screen (Lars Hoel is credited with the multimedia work), which is a shame; the projections are generally limited to photos of West of the other people in her life, but add little to the play itself. Bobby's character work doesn't require technological tricks to be effective, and the writing is clear enough for the time period and events to always be obvious. Mark T. Simpson designed the set and lights, which depict the cluttered attic in which West stores many of her memories, and are more successful at not detracting from Bobby.

If the play hasn't yet found its ideal form, West and Bobby provide a very strong foundation on which the authors can continue to build. Once the audience can be more thoroughly surprised by West the person and West the author, the chances are very good that That Woman will presently surprise them as well.

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That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers
Through March 13
manhattantheatresource, 177 MacDougal Street just south of 8th Street
Running time: 75 minutes
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101