Kate Middleton, Aedin Moloney, Joyce Cohen,
Amelia White, and Emily Walton
Photo by Richard Termine
As Jean Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” This is most certainly true for the people who are gathered together by necessity in the Mint Theater Company’s splendid production of Irish playwright Hazel Ellis’s 1938 drama Women Without Men, now on view at the company’s new home at City Center Stage II.
To begin with, what a nice new home the Mint has found for itself after being pushed out of the midtown space it had occupied for two decades, a victim of skyrocketing rental costs. It is sad to be forced out, or course, but the new space at City Center is a lovely one, with lots of room for the wonderful set Vicki R. Davis has designed for this production, the first thing you see when you take your seat in the audience.
It is the teachers’ sitting room at a private girls’ school -- all polished wood, walls lined with bookcases, a lovely rug on the floor, and comfy chairs in front of the fire. How cozy and inviting it all looks. Until, one by one, we meet the embittered, backbiting, thin-skinned, and territorial teachers who have spent far too much time with one another over the years.
They are, in short, trapped. They are “women without men,” as the title says, meaning they have little recourse but to work in one of the few professions where it is acceptable for them to be employed. The school is not a large one, with only fifty students, a headmistress (Joyce Cohen), a matron (Amelia White) and six teachers, including the eager newcomer, Jean (Emily Walton). Except for holidays, all of them live together and work together day in and day out, year after year after year.
We get to meet everyone as Jean does, and we see their strengths and their foibles through her eyes. Jean is the lucky one, engaged to be married but postponing her wedding day so she can put her education to good use before settling down. She is in it to make a difference in the world, while everyone else needs to teach in order to eke out a living.
And what a crew they are: the pompous and judgmental Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey), the fluttery and vain Miss Ridgeway (Kate Middleton), the hypersensitive and insecure Miss Willoughby (Aedin Moloney), the easily offended outsider Mlle. Vernier (Dee Pelletier), and the above-it-all Miss Strong (Macy Bacon), the closest to a friend that Jean can find.
A tiff between Jean and Miss Connor, who has taken an instant dislike to the younger woman, becomes the impetus for the central plot, resulting in a couple of surprising turns. There are also a few interactions with some of the students. But really, the play is mostly about the circumstances that have forced these women together, and their reaction to their stifled existence. Indeed, the only comfort each can find is through feeling superior to the others.
The cast, under Jenn Thompson’s direction, is rock solid, and each of the actresses manages to create a distinct personality for her character. You probably would not want to spend much time with these women in real life, but this portrait of their confined and constrained lives is thoroughly engaging. A special thumbs up, too, to dialect coach Amy Stoller.
Women Without Men is yet another triumph for the Mint, a company that has made it its mission to unearth and breathe new life into little known works from the past. It is a mission they take on with with the greatest care and with consistently excellent results.
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