Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Top Girls
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Great Wave

Rosie Hallett, Summer Brown, Julia McNeal,
Monica Lin, and Monique Hafen Adams

Photo by Kevin Berne
Fittingly, there are no men on stage in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, which opened this week at American Conservatory Theatre's Geary Theater. There is, however, a veritable miasma of toxic masculinity that suffuses virtually every moment of Churchill's 1982 Obie Award-winning play.

Although Top Girls centers on Marlene (Michelle Beck), a "career woman" who has put family responsibilities behind her in order to achieve a position of relative power and authority, it is populated by a cast of women—historical and contemporary, real and fictional—who have suffered under men's thumbs, or have thwarted efforts designed to control them or hinder their ambitions.

As the play opens, it's 1982 and Marlene is hosting a dinner at an upscale restaurant to celebrate her promotion to managing director of an employment agency. Her guests, however, are not her cohorts at the Top Girls agency but a collection of women from history and fiction. There's Pope Joan (a marvelous Rosie Hallett, whose hooded glare and shy demeanor belie her sense of power), a woman who, according to legend, passed as a man and served as pope in the 9th century. The party also includes Lady Nijo (the equally marvelous Monica Lin), concubine to a Japanese emperor in the 13th century; Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal, in a subtly powerful performance), a 19th century Yorkshirewoman who traveled widely and wrote prolifically at a time when most women did neither; Dull Gret, a figure from a Bruegel painting who represents bad-tempered women; and Patient Griselda, a character from The Canterbury Tales (and folklore), a Job-like figure who is emotionally abused by her husband but who is ultimately restored to her position, stoically weathering all the cruelty to which her man subjects her.

Together, these six women share a meal (and lots of wine) and regale each other with the stories of their lives, reinforcing the subtle (and not so subtle) misogyny each of them has faced. Some, like Patient Griselda, have been kept to heel, but seem not to care. Others, like Pope Joan or Isabella Bird, took full charge of their destinies, but still suffered under the yoke of male privilege. The birth of boys is celebrated, women debasing themselves through blind obedience passes almost without remark—it's creepy, but Churchill's humor acts as a subversive force. We find ourselves laughing in one moment, and in the next realizing that the comedy serves as a crack where light comes in and reveals what women face in a man's world, and suddenly the play's not nearly so funny.

Soon enough we leave this fantasy sequence behind and are in the offices of the Top Girls agency (lovely sets by designer Nina Ball), where Churchill once again refuses to make things easy on us. Yes, Marlene is the new Managing Director, but it's only a small employment agency she will run—not, say, a multi-national corporation or a global bank. What's more, the women who come in seeking new jobs aren't expecting C-level assignments, but more mundane positions of the sort to which women have often been limited. It's a slow-acting satire, but as it creeps up we begin to realize just how sharp a blade Churchill wields.

In addition to a highly talented cast (there's truly no weak performance here), director Tamilla Woodard takes Churchill's text and infuses it with tremendous vigor and emotional impact. She lets powerful lines (like Marlene's "I want to be free in a free world.") be unleashed on us not with an explosive bang, but a quiet, confident resolve that somehow manages to imbue them with an even greater force. The blocking is imaginative and serves the story, but never calls attention to itself, and it feels like each performer has been given the freedom to find a physical approach to her character that creates tremendous definition of their personae, and lets us empathize more deeply with each of them.

Top Girls is set in the early 1980s, but it feels—tragically—quite contemporary, as I know (from my daughter, sister, and female friends and colleagues) just what women still have to overcome almost on a daily basis. Not just in the workplace, but in relationships, and even when venturing out in public. There's a line I wrote in my notebook that might qualify as the saddest note I've ever scratched out in a darkened theater. Just after one of the women is recounting an affair she had and says "I had to lie down in the back of the car so the neighbors wouldn't see me go in," I wrote "the things women have to put up with!" Yes, a lot has changed in the nearly 40 years since Churchill's play premiered in London—just not enough.

Top Girls runs through October 13, 2019, at American Conservatory Theater, Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets (ranging from $15-$110) and more information are available at