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Women Without Men

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Kellie Overbey, Emily Walton, and Mary Bacon
Photo by Richard Termine

Women Without Men sounds like it could be the title of a girl-on-girl porno flick, or maybe one of those trashy, lesbian-themed pulp novels of the 1950s. It might also serve as an alternate title for any number of films and TV shows set in women's prisons, from Caged to Orange is the New Black. But the entity called Women Without Men that's under consideration here—thanks to the invaluable Mint Theater Company—is a smart, involving, skillfully crafted play by Hazel Ellis, written in the late 1930s and set at that time in a private, Protestant girls boarding school in Ireland.

The entire action of the play takes place in the school's warm, comfortable teacher's lounge (actually referred to as a "sitting room"). We meet a newbie to the faculty, the young and pretty Jean Wade, played to perfection in the Mint production by Emily Walton. While Jean is understandably somewhat nervous about the new assignment, she's looking forward to it in the way that enthusiastic, idealistic young people look forward to things. But, almost immediately, she begins to be faced with the quirks, petty jealousies, and frustrations of the other teachers, including Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon), Miss Ruby Ridgeway (Kate Middleton), Mademoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier), and Miss Margaret Willoughby (Aedin Moloney).

Though all of this starts to wear on Jean to a certain degree, nothing terribly dramatic happens until she runs afoul of Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey), a very frosty older woman who jealously guards the manuscript of a "History of Beautiful Acts Throughout the Ages," which she of all people has been working on for 20 years. The antipathy between these two becomes so acute that, when Connor's manuscript is discovered ripped to shreds, Jean is the prime suspect.

Women Without Men exists in an extremely circumscribed universe centered around the teachers. Three of the students of the Malyn Park school (played by Alexa Shae Niziak, Shannon Harrington, and Beatrice Tulchin) do make an appearance, but fairly briefly, even if one of them turns out to be pivotal to the plot. The only other two characters are the headmistress, Mrs. Newcome (Joyce Cohen) and the Matron, Mrs. Hubbert (Amelia White).

Some of the action and character relationships in the play might be viewed as soap opera-ish; at one point, I heard my theater companion mutter a response to a particular plot turn, the way my grandmother used to do when she would watch All My Children or Days of Our Lives. But the whole enterprise is elevated by the exceptional quality of Ellis's writing and the superb Mint production.

Jenn Thompson's direction of the play could not be improved upon, and across the board, the acting is extraordinarily good even when judged by the uncommonly high standard that the Mint has set over the years. Every last woman (or girl) on stage gives a stellar performance in every way, and that extends to A-plus dialect work under coach Amy Stoller. Especially notable are Walton, perfectly cast as Jean in terms of both talent and type; and Overbey and Bacon, whose work I've enjoyed greatly in several previous roles, but never more so than here. Brava also to Pelletier, whose flawless French accent as Mlle Vernier charmingly complements the other women's Irish lilts.

We never see more of the school than one room, but Vicki R. Davis's set design is so attractive as to make us think this would be a really nice place of employment if the interpersonal politics weren't so tricky. Equally fine is the work of the other designers: Martha Hally (costumes), Traci Kleiner Polimeni (lights), and Robert-Charles Vallance (wigs and hair). Prop designer Joshua Yocom has filled the room with wonderful stuff, including shelves packed with so many beautiful old books that you may feel the urge to borrow a few of them. (But don't!)

More good news, as if all of the above weren't enough: Women Without Men is being presented at City Center Stage II, marking the Mint's first staging in a new location after many years in its former home on an upper floor of a building on West 43rd Street. That space had its pluses for the company, including permanence, but also its minuses, such as a wide but low-ceilinged stage and a seating area with very long rows, little leg room, and poor sight lines, all of which tended to induce a feeling of claustrophobia. None of these negatives exist at City Center, so this gorgeous production is even more enjoyable here than it would havebeen in the previous venue.

As an important part of its overall mission to revive obscure plays, the Mint has made a specific commitment to present the work of forgotten female dramatists. Given the fact that the arts in general and theater in particular have always seemed to be far more progressive than other institutions in terms of inclusion, the relatively small number of female playwrights who have had multiple, high profile productions of their works over the decades and thereby achieved fame is both puzzling and disturbing. It behooves today's powers that be to address the inequality, and the good news is that there does seem to have been significant progress in this area over the past several years. In the meantime, many thanks to the Mint for bringing us rare gems by such playwrights as Rachel Crothers, Susan Glaspell, Teresa Deevy—and Hazel Elllis, whom I had never heard of before this production of Women Without Men, but of whom I am now a huge fan.

Women Without Men
Through March 26
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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