Five Gutsy Women

Women with smarts and guts are at the core of five shows I’ve seen recently. And I’m not just talking about the characters. This gifted handful are all actors who bring intelligence, style and emotional daring to their work, which they exemplify in these five “wow”-inspiring performances.

Let’s start with Amherst’s Ko Festival, whose season theme is Courage. Last weekend’s production illustrated that premise wonderfully. I really did say “Wow” out loud at the end of Erin Treadway’s performance in Spaceman. Notwithstanding the title, Leegrid Stevens’ almost-one-person play is about a female astronaut on a solo flight to Mars. Her spacecraft is no shiny Enterprise flight deck but, in designer Carolyn Mraz’s remarkably detailed skeleton of an interplanetary capsule, a chaotic maze of blinking lights, computer screens and velcroed accessories (which slowly float away when she lets them go, courtesy of an almost-invisible stagehand). She sucks breakfast out of a squeeze-tube and her space suit, plastered with sponsor logos, reeks from sweat and shit. She complains to ground control about chronic malfunctions, fields inane interviews from earthbound media and teases her talking “Mission Buddy” computer with Hal jokes.

She observes at one point that the journey alternates between “boredom and panic”—the latter when a meteoroid sideswipes the vessel and when a solar flare threatens to incinerate it. There’s also heartache. She was selected for the mission partly because her fellow-astronaut husband was killed on a previous spaceflight. As the isolation begins to take its toll, she starts talking to him, then seeing him.

Treadway’s thrilling and, yes, courageous performance made all these moments organic, by turns funny, startling and agonizing, creating a fully realized, deliciously complicated portrait of a woman literally on the edge: of the solar ocean, her emotional reserves, her patience with earthlings, and finally her sanity.

Ko presents a different visiting company each week. This Friday-Sunday it’s the Springfield-based Performance Project’s First Generation ensemble in their newest work, fo n’ ale (“we must go” in Haitian Creole), a “visual poem and waking dreamscape” in which a group of young first-generation immigrant/refugees from six countries and three continents share their stories of home, arrival, roots and rootlessness.

The woman at the center of Extremities, playing through July 27th at the Unicorn Theatre on the Berkshire Theater Group’s Stockbridge campus, is on quite a different journey. Jolted out of idle boredom into terrorized panic by an attempted rape and murder, she finds herself hurtling down the dark corridors of her own unrealized capacity for fury, hatred and revenge. Molly Camp plays Marjorie, who in a moment goes from the extremity of fear to the limits of rage and retaliation. The performance is an unrelenting exercise in outrage—a sustained pitch of emotion that could simply wear you out if it weren’t for Camp’s laser focus and the sure hand of director Karen Allen, who played the role in the original Off-Broadway production.

The object of Marjorie’s ferocious retaliation is Raul, a rough-and-ready laborer with a wily preservation instinct served by a lying tongue. Marjorie’s escape from his lethal clutches is only the beginning. She trusses him up, imprisons him in her fireplace, and sets about digging a hole to bury him alive. James McMenamin’s performance is also pretty gutsy, as he spends most of the play hogtied and blindfolded, whining, wheedling and menacing.

William Mastrosimone’s play could well have been a two-hander, a one-on-one conflict that makes us guess which way the tables will turn. But the playwright broadens and, to this theatergoer, dilutes the drama by injecting Marjorie’s two roommates into the scene and adding a couple of hackneyed tension-raisers (as in, Marjorie has been sleeping with one of their boyfriends). Kelly McCreary and Miriam Silverman are just fine—the latter commendable for credibly handling her character’s standard-issue psychobabble—but they’re not necessary. I’d rather see Molly Camp come round to her journey’s end all by her exceptional self.

The tables do indeed turn in Tryst, the psychological thriller running through this weekend at Chester Theatre Company. Set in Victorian England, Karoline Leach’s play relates the story of a charming con man who marries lonely spinsters to bleed their bank accounts, and gives the melodramatic theme not one but two startling twists.

Allison McLemore plays Adelaide, a milliner with a hole-in-the-wall job and a belittling life at home with her parents. She’s also got a nest egg of savings and a jeweled brooch, a treasured heirloom. That’s what catches George’s eye. He’s an East Ender who has parlayed a handsome face and phony upper-crust accent into a shady career as a swindler.

McLemore is a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performer—not because she’s a beauty, which she is, but because her clarity of focus and emotional honesty are so compelling that you don’t want to miss a moment. In the opening sequence, when the two characters face the audience and explain themselves in turn, at times I was watching her even when he was talking. That’s partly because I didn’t quite buy Justin Campbell’s performance as George. This threadbare fraud seems to enjoy watching himself playing his part, but I felt the actor is also watching himself playing his part, making it feel a bit disconnected.

McLemore, though, is thoroughly present and utterly committed. She’s been to Chester twice before, in 2010 as shy, prim May in The Nibroc Trilogy and the following year as the fearful but steely governess in The Turn of the Screw. Here she’s a bit of both— nervous and self-deprecating under the shower of George’s attentions, but sustained by a commonsensical backbone. In McLemore’s exquisitely detailed performance, the arc of the woman’s journey, a timorous mouse whose eager grasp at her one bright chance sends her to the precipice, is spellbinding.

Kate Burton stars in Hapgood, Tom Stoppard’s pretzel-puzzle of a play, through this weekend at Williamstown Theatre Festival. It’s a spy-thriller parody that’s also about—indeed, based on—quantum theory. Its plot twists rest on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—that you can’t simultaneously gauge the position and momentum of a subatomic particle—and on the wave-particle duality of light: “The act of observing determines the outcome,” as one character explains.

This is classic cheeky sleight-of-mind Stoppard—James Bond meets Niels Bohr. The play’s characters parallel those infuriatingly elusive particles (just how many are there? for a start). They populate a Cold War plot about stealing, not a nuclear secret but a sub-nuclear one—the key to limitless energy derived from the collisions of particles and antiparticles.

Hapgood was written in 1988, just before the Iron Curtain fell, and it turns a satirical eye on the spy game as depicted by the likes of John le Carré. Burton plays the title role, a midlevel spymaster in the George Smiley mold (but with loads more personality) who’s called “Mother” by her colleagues, probably because she’s the sole female in an all-male department, and probably sarcastically, since she’s distinctly unmotherly with everyone but her preteen son. She’s the smartest guy in the room, two steps ahead of everyone else, charming when necessary and withering when crossed.

Burton’s performance is as brisk and professional as her character—and as chameleon, especially in a second role as Hapgood’s twin sister (or is she?)—as well as almost-endearingly human, whether she’s cheering on her son’s hopeless rugby team or loading her Glock. The supporting cast is marvelous, but I have to pick out Jake Weber as Kerner, the double (or triple) Russian agent, a scientist and political maverick. Rumpled and ironic, impervious to authority, it’s he who explains the physics that runs the clockwork of the plot with a combination of delight in the ideas and contempt for the mortals who don’t get it.

He also speaks the line that gives at least part of Stoppard’s game away. He doesn’t like spy fiction, he says, because he doesn’t like secrets, like the identity of the bad guy. “If the author knows, it’s rude not to tell.” The secret is that here, the author does tell, sort-of, right up front … and we still don’t know what’s really going on.

Good People, playing through this weekend at New Century Theatre in Northampton, features a strong ensemble cast clustered around a tour-de-force performance. Sara Whitcomb plays Margaret, the middle-aged single mother of a retarded daughter. Already running just to keep in place, she’s frantic when she gets fired from her minimum-wage job at the Dollar Store. At the end of her resources, financial and emotional, she appeals to an old boyfriend from the neighborhood—working-class South Boston—who has gotten out and now has Dr. in front of his name and a swank house in Chestnut Hill.

David Lindsay-Abaire grew up in Southie, and his play is a dissection of the class divide that infects our supposedly classless society. Intentionally, I’m sure, he makes us middle-class theatergoers more uncomfortable in the scenes in the doctor’s upscale office and home than in Margaret’s proletarian kitchen and the church Bingo hall. Of course, those scenes are more discomforting, as Margaret embarrasses both herself and her hosts in those glossy surroundings where privilege, as often as not, is a product of birth or luck.

One of Whitcomb’s fellow cast members told me the role is one “Sara was meant to play,” and I agree. Having nailed the Boston Brahmin voice and manner in Painting Churches with New Century two seasons ago, she flips the switch and completely inhabits the Southie accent, body language and smart-aleck sass. She’s ably abetted by Susan Greenlee as her fashion-conscious best friend and Ellen Colton as her crabby old landlady, by Tyler Morrill as her young (ex-) supervisor, by Brian Joseph Smith as the conflicted Southie escapee, and by Alika Hope as his sleek, African-American wife.

Which is a puzzle: Lindsay-Abaire has made the character black and sympathetic and sophisticated, far classier than the white woman who comes calling, and then does nothing with that inevitable tension—especially in the context of South Boston, where rancor over the court-ordered school busing in the seventies and eighties still smolders, de facto segregation still rules and creeping gentrification is reigniting old resentments.

Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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