Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Bull in a China Shop
Diversionary Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Jo Anne Glover and Tamara McMillian
Photo by Daren Scott
The choir music playing in the background early on in Diversionary Theatre's production of Bull in a China Shop might lead the audience to believe they are about to watch a historically authentic play about Mary Woolley (Jo Anne Glover), the former president of Mount Holyoke College, the Massachusetts women's school. It soon turns out, however, that's not the case, as the performers, wearing Beth Connelly's period piece costumes, start dancing to modern rock music.

Bryna Turner's script features contemporary dialogue in an attempt to bring Mary's story to a modern audience. While a few sections focus on Woolley's accomplishments, the San Diego premiere is really a historical comedy about the decades-long same-sex affair between Mary and Jeannette Marks (Tamara McMillian), a professor at the college. If Mary might be the better known of the two, Jeanette is just as important in Turner's show.

Starting in 1899 and set in South Hadley, Massachusetts, the show has Mary (labeled as just Woolley in the program) and Jeanette in love with, and wanting the best for, each other. Jeanette becomes proud of Mary's ability to connect with students, while Mary wants to motivate her lover to be creative and unique. Over time, their love suffers from some major roadblocks, particularly when the suffragette movement affects their lives. Mary has a cautionary attitude toward the feminist movement, while Jeannette becomes a rebellious crusader for equal voting rights. Despite their issues, the couple does everything possible to stay together—nearly 40 years of their time together is depicted over 75 minutes.

Despite working with such a short duration, Turner generally does an impressive job of packing in many events into the story. Although a few situations, such as Mary's shifting attitude towards the suffragette movement, may feel a little rushed, these moments are surprisingly rare. Some of the humor comes from the various characters that appear onstage. It's funny to simply watch Mary, Jeannette, Pearl (Andrea Agosto), a student with a crush on Jeannette, Felicity (Maybelle Covington), a non-confrontational faculty member, and the traditional Dean Welsh (Milena (Sellers) Phillips) with each other. There are several scenes featuring Mary and Jeannette talking about their personal and professional lives, and Turner's focus on their connection is the emotional center of the staging, where Glover and McMillian vividly depict the couple's long-term relationship.

As Mary, Glover brings a fiery and passionate energy to the part, while showing a tender side in many sequences with McMillian. Turner's dialogue early on makes Jeannette seem a little too mopey and miserable, yet her quick growth is depicted wonderfully by McMillian. Through the performances of the two leads, audiences clearly see how influential the women were to each other. Other performers handle Turner's prose with intelligence and strong comic timing. They leave theatregoers wanting to know more about their fictitious characters, which is always a good sign of a standout ensemble. Director Kim Strassburger and her crew are equally important to the production at the University Heights venue.

Strassburger knows when to move the tale at a quick pace, but is able to slow down to present situations that are contemplative and introspective. She stages a handful of monologues, using visually beautiful lighting from Curtis Mueller, that create a peaceful tone when compared with the fast-moving action of Mary's busy life. For example, Mary's speech when she spends an extended period of time in China is a particularly standout instance of a quietly moving sequence. TJ Fucella's audio is made up primarily of high-energy songs by female rock singers and Ron Logan's set effectively represents different parts of Mount Holyoke. Their work, along with Connelly's costumes, are uniquely influenced by the past and present.

Mary and Jeannette's bond makes for a touching and funny love story. Without sugarcoating the problems the couple face, Strassburger's interpretation is a positive and sincere look at commitment.

Bull in a China Shop, through October 14, 2018, at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd # 101, San Diego CA. Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $15.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 1-619-220-0097.