NEW YORK—”Women Without Men” is a remarkable play, springing as it did from the brain and pen of a young Irish actress named Hazel Ellis. Ellis trained at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and went on to perform in a variety of plays at the noted Gate Theatre in the 1930s. She wrote only two plays: “Portrait in Marble” and “Women Without Men,” which both attracted good critical and audience attention.
Now, New York’s Mint Theater Company, whose goal is to unearth and produce worthy forgotten plays of the past, is presenting “Women Without Men” with an all-female cast and crew. This decision is only fitting, as the play takes place entirely within the bounds of a sitting room in a fictitious private girls school in Dublin.
And it’s easy enough to believe that one is actually viewing events in such a site, as the remarkable set by Vicki R. Davis, enhanced by Joshua Yocom’s props, pulls one into the story.
An interesting event has just taken place. A new, fledgling teacher has been hired. Furthermore, she’s young and attractive, and all the old regulars are eager to meet Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton).
Jean proves to be very popular with the students—not so popular with the regulars, some of whom are a bit sour basically. These women have endured a pretty routine life within the walls of the school for many years, with not much chance for advancement or being able to put aside enough money to enable them to enjoy their retirement.
The eight women get along with one another, more or less. This is best accomplished by keeping to one’s self and not getting too involved. Matron (Amelia White), Ruby (Kate Middleton), Margaret Willoughby (Aedin Moloney), and Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon) follow this line.
But some of the women have projects: Mademoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier) is knitting a rug, which she insists on working on in the sitting room, as her own room is too cold. Dublin in the ’30s lacks modern heating equipment.
The rather stuffy Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey) has been finding sparse moments of time over the past 20 years to write a book on beauty in the world. Needless to say, this labor of love consumes her. If anything should happen to it!
But something does happen. There is a fox in the henhouse. Someone destroys Connor’s manuscript, which throws the entire company into a tizzy as they all seek to discover the culprit. Suspicion lands on Jean and fireworks ensue.
Almost everyone’s emotions surge to the surface, and people who had hitherto seemed detached now show their true colors, especially Connor (giving actress Kellie Overbey a fine opportunity to take the stage quite passionately).
All ends well, fortunately.
Arguably, of more interest than the plot is the viewing of several women in a cloistered and suffocating environment, and how societal norms and pressures affected them. This was a time when women’s chief goal was to marry and hold sway in the home. Here, only headmistress Mrs. Newcome (Joyce Cohen) is married.
Interestingly, playwright Ellis has given Jean an out. She has decided that teaching is not for her. Furthermore, she has a fiance who, in fact, awaits her outside the school at the end of the semester. She will be all right. What of the others?
As is typical of Mint productions, all the elements succeed on a high level. Individual performances are top-drawer, resulting in excellent ensemble playing, under the sensitive hand of director Jenn Thompson. Not to be overlooked are the authentic costumes by Martha Hally. (Ladies, remember those stockings with seams?)
The three young students are well played by Beatrice Tulchin, Shannon Harrington, and Alexa Shae Niziak.
A very entertaining and thoughtful production and a fine addition to the Mint’s roster of close to 50 offerings since 1995.
‘Women Without Men’
New York City Center, Stage II
131 W. 55th St.
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or MintTheater.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: March 26
Diana Barth writes for several publications, including her New Millennium, an arts publication. She may be contacted at DiaBarth@juno.com