Patrons of Theater New Brunswick who came away from last fall's Yard Sale saying, "Yes, but what about women?" have their answer. It's Joanna McClelland Glass's If We Are Women. TNB's current production is almost a mirror image of, or perhaps an answer to, Bill Gaston's "guy play." Like that work, If We Are Women focuses on the problems and characteristics of one sex, partly by keeping the other sex out of things entirely. Here, the action is precipitated by the death of one man, and ends just before the next one comes on stage.
In between, we have a good deal often amusing, sometimes awkward, and occasionally moving and insightful discussion between women and their mothers about getting along with (and without) men, about finding roles in society, and about the impossibility of learning from someone else's experience. It's a rich, interesting and funny production. Yet somehow (again mirroring Yard Sale) its script poses some daunting problems for the company, which they don't entirely solve.
One of these problems has to do with the convention of monologue or "aside" -- characters standing on the stage and talking to us in the audience. There's a great deal of this in the play (some of it quite funny), but it's not consistently presented: sometimes other characters on stage can apparently hear what's being said, and sometimes they can't: sometimes the speaker is highlighted for us, sometimes not. This poses problems for the actors not speaking -- do they freeze, or do they respond? Is this conventional, or is this realistic? All of this inconsistency seems something the actors are coping with, rather than building on.
But they do cope well. In fact, Rita Howell, as Rachel, is stunningly good. In a play which has some real difficulty deciding whether characters are actually interacting, she consistently convinced me that Rachel was there, really listening, really responding, really thinking. Rachel's attention was like a spotlight she played on the other characters during their speeches (sometimes fairly long). Listening is a difficult art, as any amateur actor knows. Aspiring actors might well go see this production to take some lessons from an evident master. And her helpless laughter about her own not-so-good joke about Sodom and Menorah (a gay neighbor and his Jewish partner) was so naturally infectious it brought the whole audience into the joke. And, perhaps equally notable, she managed to be visibly Jewish without becoming a caricature.
Jenny Munday, TNB's own "playwright-in-residence," is a strong, competent Jessica, caught in this generational sandwich between her independence-declaring daughter and her own mothers -- her natural mother and Rachel, the mother of her ex-husband, who has become, in some important ways, as much or more Jessica's mother. Munday's comic skills are well known to Fredericton audiences, but one of the really engaging moments in the play is the thoughtful dialogue between Jessica and her daughter about the necessity to "find work that sustains you" rather than looking for naive fantasies of romantic happiness.
Maralyn Ryan is Jessica's mother Ruth, an illiterate farm wife from Saskatchewan, who -- like Rachel -- has arrived to comfort Jessica in her grief. She does a courageous and competent job of coping with a part I thought posed some serious difficulties. The components of her character are never, I thought, really pulled together by the script: over and over, we find ourselves laughing at her blunt, forthright and sometimes obscene language, largely because it is so unexpected coming from someone who looks and acts as she does. But of course the more often it happens the less of a surprise it can be. Still, Ryan continues to be able to surprise us, right to the end, in part because she is so good at making us see Ruth's feelings about other characters and herself.
Ann Baggley, as Polly, the eighteen year old daughter, faces a similar problem with her role, and, again, deals with it competently and thoughtfully. Yet, by the end of the play I still had great difficulty believing that a young woman so articulate and intelligent in analyzing the advice her mother and grandmother were dispensing could express (let alone believe) the naive romantic fantasy that was leading her to abandon her life and go live on a farm in Colorado with a man she was going to have to "reconstruct."
There are problems with how the production looks, as well. John Ferguson's set, as we've come to expect, is elegant, simple, functional, and lovely, and Sholem Dogoy's lighting is as subtle and elegant as the set. But I was distracted almost throughout the evening by inconsistencies between the lighting and the script. It seems important to the play -- at least at the beginning -- that it take place directly overlooking the Atlantic ocean, and that it's morning at the beginning and night at the end. We're reminded of this by dialogue, and by the occasional call of seagulls. But nothing whatever about the lighting suggested that; this beachfront house might as well have been in a basement (an extremely well-lit basement).
Another real problem with this script is that -- again, like Yard Sale -- there's really not much to keep you anticipating new events: if the talk itself doesn't amuse and engage you, you're not going to be kept interested hoping to find out how Jessie copes with her grief over her dead companion, whether he really betrayed her before he died, or whether Polly runs off to the farm in Colorado.
Still, this is a production well worth seeing, for the quality of the acting as well as for the reflections it will provoke on how women survive in our society. Men may sell everything and start over. But "if we are women," Virginia Woolf said, "we think back through our mothers."