‘The Women’ invade Dayton Playhouse with ’30s-era drama
By Jacqui Theobald
Photo: right: Tamar Fishbein (standing) and (l-r) Carrin Ragland, Renee Frank Reed, and Caitlin Blackfordleft: (l-r) Lindsey Cardoza, Rachel Oprea, and Cheryl Mellen in ‘The Women’; photos: Art Fabian
A winter-bundled audience blew into the cozy Playhouse on a cold opening night and was transported to a different world: an absolutely gorgeous tableau of elegantly gowned women who then moved into brief poses before an abstract New York backdrop.
Action and dialogue instantly dashed into high gear and stayed that way for two intense acts.
Director Robb Willoughby says, “The 1936 play, a bit dated, has become a campy cult classic and, rather than naturalistically, is performed best in heightened reality.”
Clare Boothe Luce, a story herself, created this over-the-top view of pampered wealthy Manhattan socialites thriving on gossip and innuendo in place of true friendship or useful activity. It was a segment of society that Luce knew, but chose to pierce and poke, never losing herself in it. She was too involved in being a writer, stateswoman, member of Congress, and ambassador to Italy, as well as wife of the founder of Time magazine. It is a bygone era.
Today, Willoughby had the challenge of directing 19 women playing 35 roles.
“The ensemble of eight: Tamar Fishbein, Carrin Ragland, Caitlin Blackford, Becky Howard, Cheryl Mellen, Lindsey Cardoza, Heather Carrell, and Tiffany Williams playing 14 different parts was essential,” he says, “and backstage was a madhouse: people changing clothes, moving scenery, entering, exiting, moving props.”
In fact, the 11 lead and supporting players are an ensemble, too, who perform at an even pace, together.
At the plot center are Mary, somewhat naïve and certain her husband is faithful, played by Rachel Oprea (né Wilson) and her “friend” Sylvia, played by Libby Scancarello, a fine hate-able, snake-in-the-grass bully.
Jenna Gomes is Crystal Allen, a blonde gold digger, complete with bathtub scene. She gets Mary’s man, but grows tired of him and his children. Nine-year-old Danikah Skaroupka plays Little Mary.
Amy Taint plays perpetually pregnant Edith, while Marcia Nowik as Mrs. Morehead, does a powerful job of giving her daughter jaded advice. Nowik has designed her own runway-worthy costumes. Renee Franck-Reed plays Countess De Lage, on her fourth husband. Miriam Aarons is played by Ellen Ballerene.
Completing the bridge-playing gossipers is Tori Tuccillo as writer Nancy and Yara Khalil as Peggy. Ash Sission is Jane, the all-seeing maid.
The director keeps the pace brisk and loud. His cast is a mixture of experienced actors and several who are new to the Playhouse, even new to the stage. He says the Playhouse does like adding new faces to their “family.” Deirdre Root is assistant director. Logan Dabny is stage manager. Melissa Childress is lighting designer, and Bob Kovach, sound designer. Tina McPhearson, Brian Sharp’s producer, takes on the challenging job of props.
Theresa Kahle designed the fabulous costumes that clothed these model-like figures. They are era-appropriate and perfectly becoming. The women in the audience loved the look.
Steve Burton provided the ’30s-era wigs that transformed familiar faces into the elegant strangers that could easily inhabit that past world. Highly regarded artist Chris Newman designed the black and white NY cityscape behind the two rotating right angle flats that serve as everything from ultra-sophisticated urban apartment living room and its kitchen to an exercise studio to a hospital room to a Reno Hotel. (NY divorce laws caused women to go to Nevada for a “quickie.”)
They are turned and changed so smoothly, as part of the action, that no time elapses in transitions.
Background ’20s and ’30s music, selected by Willoughby, adds to the upbeat atmosphere. The audience seems to be caught up in the fun of the irony. The program director’s note highlights the “acerbic study of the privileged and the damage words can inflict.”
The 80-year-old play is a contrast between then and now. Our lifestyles have changed: now women are busier, with professions and many external interests, and we hurl our virtual arrows with social media.
“The Women” has cat-like endurance. One of its lives was as a 1939 film with a splash of the biggest Hollywood names: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, and Mary Boland. It had stage revivals in 1956 (called “The Opposite Sex”) and also in 1973. Gloria Swanson was attracted to it. So was Elaine Stritch. Think of them and of June Allyson, Joan Collins, and Cynthia Nixon—although not all at the same time. It has played more or less constantly on community or college stages somewhere.
In the Dayton Playhouse version, Renee Franck-Reed, who plays Countess De Lage, says in her program notes that she saw the play as a child at a touring Kenley Players production here. Ever since, she has wanted to be in “The Women.”
I have a similar memory, but without stage ambition. My mother appeared in many community theatre productions and I spent an equal amount of childhood time sitting in back of a semi-dark rehearsal, scribbling homework and absorbing scripts.
Strangely, I no longer remember exact lines, but I do remember wondering why these people were so mean. And I remember thinking Luce was really smart. Her bon mots include: “No good deed goes unpunished,” “They say women talk too much. If you have ever worked in Congress [she did] you know the filibuster was invented by men,” and “A man’s home is his castle on the outside; on the inside more often his nursery.”
The Playhouse’s “Women” has mounted a breathless romp—a social filibuster of its time.
‘The Women’ takes the Dayton Playhouse stage at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, March 17-18, and at 2 p.m., Sunday March 19. Tickets are 18 for adults, $16 for seniors and students. Dayton Playhouse is located at 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave. in Dayton. For tickets or more information, please call 937.424.8477 or visit TheDaytonPlayhouse.com.