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The Women — EgoPo Classic Theater at the Latvian Society

women -- interiorThe opening few minutes of Lane Savadove’s production of EgoPo’s production of Clare Booth Luce’s comic classic, “The Women,” are far from funny and border on the ominous.

As the audience gathers, it sees a contentedly sleeping woman swathed womblike in elegant, comfortable bright white bedclothes that spill over the entire stage surface as she lies nestled in cozy sunken niche center stage. As lights dim for “The Women” to begin, odd, disturbing music chosen by David Cimetta, all deep, rumbling tones that seem threatening, mechanical, and portentous, is heard, and the woman, as she must if she isn’t staying in place for the entire production, begins to stir. As she rises, you see menstrual blood on her nightgown and the sheets.

The sequence symbolizes the monthly universal cycle of fertile women’s ovulation and evacuation. It creates a powerful image of a biological happenstance that unites all women and is meant, I’m sure, to be a provocative preamble to “The Women.”. The confusion is neither it nor Cimetta’s sound design has much to do with Luce’s play, which is a marathon catfight that broke ground because it showed women — The cast is all women. — talking about matters female characters rarely discussed candidly on stage and it depicted several women whose approach to life is all claws. Sharpened, bared, and ready to pounce in “Jungle Red” nail polish. The characters in Luce’s play may be types, and they may be exaggerated embellishments of people drawn from, but they are not archetypes or representative of all women everywhere, though Luce depicts a wide range from several classes and walks of life.

You wonder if “The Women” is being overthought and going to be presented as study of women rather than Luce’s satiric pageant that makes points and has a story but is essentially and ineluctably a comedy. A cunning, shrewdly crafted, and perceptive comedy, but a comedy. Luce aims primarily for laughs and entertainment while showing she knows her territory, Manhattan’s leisurely wealthy set, and the phyla and classes among the female of our species. Sbe is not ever subtle or given to offering models for our consideration (except, of course, in the dress-fitting scene).

Fortunately, Savadove and Cimetta change tone immediately after the bloody prologue, The sound becomes upbeat and jazzy. The first speakers, especially Mary Lee Bednarek, capture Luce’s stinging tartness. All seems to be back on keel as far as “The Women” is concerned. But Savadove doesn’t seem totally content to let Luce’s play be a rollicking comedy.

Oh, the laughs are there. Plenty of them. Geneviève Perrier, playing one of the tamer parts, the perpetually pregnant Edith, sees to that single-handedly, quite a feat considering Edith’s lines are more sardonic and complaining than bitchy, venomous, and dripping with acidic innuendo. Sam Price as the Broadway actress, Miriam; Karina Balfour as the possibly Lesbian author and traveler, Nancy; and Colleen Murphy as the ruthless and pragmatic lioness in the den, Crystal, all have a way with a phrase that elicits both laughs and appreciative smirks and eye rolls. Beatrice Hemmings is aces in a number of marginal parts as a nurse and fashion consultant. Julie Roberts scores high as an exercise instructor, and Elizabeth Hostetter has some enlightening things to say the owner of a Reno ranch, circa 1936, that caters to female divorce-seekers.

But Savadove lowers the volume on carping, sniping, and jesting to let some of the franker, more thoughtful elements of Luce’s script have time and space to make a point. Melanie Julian, as the focal character of “The Women,” the upstanding, sensible and deliberative Mrs. Stephen (Mary) Haines, builds her strong and admirable performance from ruing and learning from Mary’s folly at stepping into the traps and falling down the rabbit holes planted by her gossipy friends instead of following her own superior judgment and the advice of her even wiser, more experienced, and level-headed mother.

Luce gives Mary a sarcastic salvo or two, and Mary is not always above disparaging her gender by describing some of its wilier ways, but Julian sets her apart as different and unusual. Hers is a Mary who visibly considers everything that happens to her, and all the mayhem around her, especially in Reno, with an observant eye and open, receptive mind. This is a Mary who can chart her mistakes and grow because of them, unlike her friends, Sylvia Porter, who enjoys scandal too much to stay far removed from the slop, and the Countess de Lage, who will keep buying mates and rhapsodizing “l’amour, l’amour” until she’s fatally heartbroken or bankrupt, neither of which is likely to happen. In Savadove’s production, Mary is more than the conventional, competent woman who would stay above the fray if she wasn’t drawn, or pushed, into it. She loses her reason only to regain it. She becomes a picture of practicality and pragmatism who can also find peace and eventually keep her man because he will appreciate and want to stay with her.

Clare Booth Luce doesn’t set “The Women” as a moral tale. But Lane Savadove does. While his approach is a surprise, “The Women” is richer for it. Or at least doesn’t suffer, barring the few times Cimetta’s visceral grumbling sounds dominate the time it takes to shift scenery. Savadove, and Julian, add some genuine heart, into a piece that will work solidly as a deft, surefire cannonade of entertainment.

Julian leads the way by making Mary well-behaved and rational without making her into a prude or a sap. The same is true of Cheryl Williams, who is a pillar of sound logic as Mary’s mother. Williams’s gift is her ability to show Mrs. Morehead’s wisdom as worldly and culled from experience rather than mired in the stuffy, starchy Puritanism you’d find in many plays from “The Women’s” period (or even today when Puritanism in the form of political correctness and ideological orthodoxy is on the obnoxious hoof). Price’s Miriam Aarons also displays a world view that has merit and speaks to common sense as well as common adultery. Even Murphy’s well-played and cunningly conceived Crystal Allen speaks well for the woman who sees a chance to raise her social status, or at least live in grander style. Savadove’s production may not have the biting sophistication that has made Luce’s piece a delight and the brilliant 1939 movie version of it an established classic, but it offers more texture by mixing extra sentiment and realism within the brittle verbal slugfest “The Women,” left to its own devices, can be.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that slugfest. Played right, it’s divine, and the EgoPo cast, Lee Minora, Rebecca Joy, and Courtney Jarmush joining the actors already mentioned, does a first-rate job, but Julian, Williams, and Price add grace notes that elevate Luce’s work from a hilarious, observant comedy to a piece about knowing what’s important, coping with adversity, and fighting everyday marital fire with nuclear ingenuity (such as is possessed by Williams’s Mrs. Morehead).

All Savadove shows has always been in Luce’s script. The director has chosen to emphasize “The Women’s” conventional side more clearly and tellingly. His opting for some forthright tête-a-têtes in no way diminishes the trenchant humor and entertainment value of Luce’s play. His prologue, even given his penchant to be more serious, is a little heavy-handed. I can’t think Savadove believes Luce’s comedy of adultery and gossip among the upper set is a comment about all women and all things feminine. I also doubt the director was leading people towards the cynical and misogynist idea that all of Sylvia’s conniving, Crystal’s baiting, and Countess de Lage’s taste for gigolos is an extreme response to monthly post-menstrual syndrome (PMS). Some moments in Savadove’s staging give one pause, but by its ending, this “The Women” proves entertaining and satisfying. Listening to Perrier, Balfour, Williams, Price, and Murphy is enough to achieve that. While Savadove’s “The Women” is a tad more moralistic than Luce’s text requires, it never becomes preachy. In 1936, when Hays Office rules were fairly new in Hollywood, this Broadway play that featured adulterous women who did not have to die or come to sad or ignoble ends for their infidelity, Luce’ work must have seemed refreshing. It remains so in Savadove’s hands.

One would have to be deaf to comedy and devoid of humor not to hear or notice the hilarity in Luce’s script. In addition to supplying great one-line zingers, Luce is clever in setting up her story. Mary famously hears about Stephen’s philandering while being tended by a chatty manicurist in a swank Manhattan spa that doesn’t have the classiest or most discreet of help. She depicts Mary’s mother as clear-headed and unbridled by conventions, should-be’s, and self-righteousness. She allows Miriam and Crystal to be equally candid. Crystal may be the closest “The Women” comes to a villain, but she never lies about what’s important to her and keeps her ruse of loving Stephen Haines, or any man, transparently mercenary. She’s much more honorable than Sylvia, who lives for gossip and is livid when she is the brunt of it.

All of the deliciousness of Luce’s script comes through, even the part about Mrs. Morehead being so unimpressed with Mary’s silly friends, she admits to not paying attention to any of them when they are talking to her.

EgoPo’s might not be the most savage of “The Women,” but it’s more than bitchy enough and has the advantage of making you feel for and root for Mary.

I keep going back to Geneviève Perrier as the best of a good cast. She is more obviously sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued than most Ediths are. Usually, Edith mildly bemoans her constantly pregnant state and the “joys” of motherhood. Often, her observations don’t register as being as perceptive and on the mark as they are. Perrier makes Edith a bitter complainer who doesn’t merely dislike her fate but actively and loudly loathes it. Of all of the women, Perrier renders Edith one of the most dangerous because she is less catty and vicious than downright accurate and candid.

Candor is the built-in advantage of Karina Balfour’s Nancy, but Balfour endows Nancy’s lines with distinct intention to rankle and sting. Nancy is the most independent of Mary’s friends. She supports herself via her career, and she shows no interest in attracting a man. Nancy alludes casually to a man that attracts her, but Balfour rightly stresses the likelihood Nancy is Lesbian, something Luce may not have had the freedom to do in 1936 (even with the way paved by EgoPo’s earlier production of this season, Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour”).

Mary Lee Bednarek relishes her role as the serial thorn in various characters’ sides, the uncontrollably scandal-spreading, scandal-causing Sylvia who likes mischief so much, she’ll force a dilemma if one doesn’t exist she can exploit. Bednarek lunges headlong into Sylvia’s disloyalty in the guise of friendship and innocence. She can smile and be coy to one’s face, but once one’s back is turned, look out. Sylvia can’t wait to pounce and will do so with alacrity. In Savadove’s production, she is more a marginal instigator than primary player, but Bednarek make sure you see how effective Sylvia is as a catalyst to mayhem.

Rebecca Joy is a bit too large and grand as Countess de Lage. Her character never graduates from being a comic figure to being a dimensional human being the way most others in Savadove’s production do. That said, Joy is also quite entertaining as she sighs and coos over love.

Sam Price is beautifully on the mark as Miriam. In Price’s hands, she has the opposite fate of Bednarek’s Sylvia. Usually a peripheral, almost unmemorable character, Miriam becomes a focal point. Though she has broken up a marriage, Sylvia’s, she remains a pillar of sense and good help and friend to Mary. Price reinforces Miriam’s importance with a smart, sophisticated performance that draws on Miriam being a Broadway star.

Colleen Murphy creates a new image of Crystal from the one forged by Joan Crawford in the 1939 movie. She is as crafty but less crass. She is a woman more hampered by being born working class than by lacking smarts or being cheap. Murphy’s Crystal only needs the chance to enter into society so she can aim for romance by the highest bidder. Murphy makes that clear in a way that makes Crystal likeable, even in her dismissal of Stephen’s daughter, Little Mary.

Costume designer Rita Squitiere, whose work is hit and miss depending on the character — fine for Mary and Edith, wretched for the reportedly chic and stylish Sylvia — delivers an inspired master stroke when, for Crystal’s bath tub scene, she sews plastic bubbles to a blanket to simulate a bubble bath. That idea earns Squitiere high points for wit and practicality, two of my favorite traits.

Elizabeth Hostetter is a hoot as Jane, the hay bale-tossing owner of a Reno ranch who gets a kick out of her guests and can write a collection of women’s nick-of-time escapes and sob stories, including her own.

Several in the supporting cast acquitted themselves well, but Beatrice Hemmings stood out for her tart verbal deliveries and delicious facial reactions to various characters as various characters. She was especially wonderful in the nursery scene, although the best moment in that sequence comes from Perrier, who has just delivered Edith’s sixth child and so is relaxed post=partum, she smokes while nursing her newborn. When a visitor asks about a mark on the baby’s head, Perrier looks closely at it for a second, then brushes it off. “Oh, it’s just as ash,” she says nonchalantly and with that dead-end-kid ennui she has cultivated as Edith. Funny. Very funny.

EgoPo mounted “The Women” in cooperation with Glassboro’s Rowan University theater department, and the Rowan representatives did a good job.

Thom Weaver’s set is creative and functional. Robert A. Thorpe and Eric Baker do a fine job with lighting.

“The Women,” produced by EgoPo Classic Theater, runs through Sunday, March 20, at the Latvian Society, 7th and Spring Garden Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $32 to $25 and can be obtained by 267-273-1414 or by visiting www.egopo.org. Grade: B-

 

 

 

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