Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The play takes place in June 1940 at the French Alps home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The pair are hosting one of their infamous salons with all of these famous women, who all happen to be visiting France, in attendance. But another visitor, the American psychologist Muriel Gardiner, to whom Stein and Toklas are providing funds in order for her to procure fake passports to secretly help Jews escape out of Europe, has arrived a day early. The combination of Gardiner's presence at the salon, which piques the interest of these famous female writers, with the ever-flowing alcohol results in nonstop barbs being flung and the revelation of intimate details, secrets and confessions all while Hitler's Nazi regime is knocking at France's door.
In a conversation I had with McCasland he said he was inspired to write the piece based on the famous literary feud between authors Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, in which McCarthy accused Hellman of stealing Gardiner's life events to create the anti-Nazi activist Julia who factors in to a portion of Hellman's memoir "Pentimento." Hellman's relationship with Julia was portrayed in the Oscar winning film Julia and the feud was also the basis for Nora Ephron's play Imaginary Friends. McCasland decided to portray a meeting between Hellman and Gardiner in his play to let audiences decide the truth. However, as depicted in the play, while Hellman's intentions are good, the fact that McCasland decides to show the pair actually meeting in person, and that Hellman took events from Gardiner's life to create the character of Julia, makes you side more with Gardiner.
McCasland's script is well plotted and his dialogue is realistic, with each woman delivering lines that are in distinct voices and are character specific. There is also an abundance of nuance in each of the characters, especially in how he depicts the conflicted emotions and contradictions that are the result of both the experiences they've all had in their lives as well as the intensity of World War II which is constantly on their periphery. While the play mainly focuses on the friendship and rivalry between Stein and Hellman, with most of the other characters, including Gardiner, reduced to supporting parts, McCasland incorporates many factual events into the script which give each woman a monologue or moment to shine. These include intimate details on such things as Parker's failed marriages, abortion, and suicide attempts; the catalyst behind the brief disappearance of Christie, which garnered worldwide attention; and specifics on how Toklas met Stein. And while some knowledge of these famous women may help in understanding the works of art and events depicted in the play, McCasland does a very good job in giving us enough pieces of information on each woman to completely understand their relationships with each other, the obstacles they all faced in their lives and careers, and their place in history.
However, there is a good amount of artistic liberty taken in the piece, not only in regard to there being no proof that Gardiner and Hellman ever met, but specifically in relation to the feelings of Stein, Toklas and Christie. In reality, some of Christie's works originally featured Jewish characters who were portrayed negatively, Stein rarely wrote about her Jewish heritage, and Toklas later converted to Catholicism. So, hearing Stein constantly speak about her Jewishness and Christie proclaim that she is a "friend of the Jews" is a bit of a stretch. Fortunately, while all of the facts in the play may not exactly be true, the strength, determination, and the bonds of friendship and trust these characters depict are what resonate.
Director Joy Bingham Strimple stages the action in a perfectly natural style and she has directed her cast to deliver realistic portrayals of these incredibly strong women. As Stein, KatiBelle Collins is bossy, authoritative and argumentative. Yet we also see from Collins' assured performance the love, trust and passion Stein feels for not only Toklas and her work but for all of these women. Her monologue, when she ponders "Why am I not normal?" is not only very well written but incredibly well delivered. Kathi Osborne's no-nonsense approach to Hellman creates a character infused with realism, strength and power. The verbal slings Hellman throws, mainly at Stein, are perfectly delivered from Osborne and infused with venom, but she also brings an honestly to the part in how she realistically questions Gardiner's motives and ponders her own inability to make any impact on what is happening in the world.
Aimee Bennett beautifully portrays the devoted, dependent Toklas who, we learn, is the only one who can truly tame Stein. Her monologue on how she met Stein is filled with love. Donna Savransky Kaufman infuses the part of Gardiner with passion and purpose. As Dorothy Parker, Donna Georgette brings a clarity to the pain that comes from ex-lovers and the loss of a child she was forced to abort. While the character of Agatha Christie is little more than an added plot device to pull back the cover on Gardiner's secret life, Janis Ash Webb delivers an elegance and an appropriate level of intrigue, along with a good accent, as the famous British mystery writer. There is also a beautiful supporting turn by Anna Katen as Stein and Toklas' maid who has a secret; once she discloses it, and all of Katen's acting choices made before the revelation have come into focus, her heartbreaking performance is complete.
Creative elements are simple but work well with the use of scattered artwork, books and mismatched furniture in the set design providing a lived-in feel to the home of Stein and Toklas. The costume designs are flawless in how they are each not only period perfect but character specific as well. The only slight quibble is with the lighting design. When the characters move individually toward the front of the stage to deliver a monologue they are often only in shadow.
Arizona Women's Theater Company's production of Little Wars has a talented cast who beautifully embody legendary women whose lives were all complicated yet who all came to depend on their bonds of friendship to overcome the many obstacles they had to face. While some of the characters as depicted are slightly sanitized from reality, the piece is full of honest emotions and presents many difficult topics. It is a powerful play that depicts the strength, vulnerabilities and power of these famous women set against the dangerous realities of Hitler's Germany while also focusing on topics such as rape, misogyny and homophobia, which are, unfortunately, still relevant today.
Arizona Women's Theatre Company's Little Wars, through July 8, 2018, at Mesa Encore Theatre's Black Box Theatre, 933 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.azwtc.org.
Director / Producer: Joy Bingham Strimple