by Samuel L. Leiter
The Mint Theater Company, forced to leave its crowded nook on the third floor of a West 43rd Street office building, has reopened in the comfortable environs of City Center’s Stage II, where it continues its mission of rediscovering forgotten plays—generally from the first half of the 20th century—that deserve another hearing. In Women Without Men, an absorbing 1938 Irish play by a now largely unknown playwright, Hazel Ellis (who wrote only one other play), the Mint has found a worthy piece, originally produced by Dublin’s Gate Theatre but, surprisingly, never seen in New York.
Women without Men belongs to the genre of girls’ boarding school plays (Girls in Uniform, The Children’s Hour, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, etc.), this one set at a Protestant institution called Malyn Park Private School. All the action of the two-act, two hour and 10 minute-play transpires in the chilly teachers’ sitting room, with its coal fire providing more warmth than most of the characters can generate. The room, nicknamed by the students the “Tyrant’s Den,” is the school’s only relatively comfortable place—the bedrooms are freezing—to congregate and work, despite the lack of a wireless. The women’s close proximity, lack of male companionship, and demanding schedules have fostered an atmosphere of petty jealousy and selfishness expressed in constant squabbling.
Into this cloistered world of festering hostility (“small schools are worse” than big ones, someone says) comes a bright new face, Jean Wade (Emily Walton), a young teacher whose charm, spirit, and idealism gain the students’ love and her colleagues’ envy. The fact that she’s engaged to a man and need not, if she wishes, remain in this job if she chooses, gives her a degree of freedom the other women don’t have. (A program note tells us that the Irish Constitution prevented women from working after marriage.) Seeing the snake pit she’s stepped into, Jean does her best to introduce civility to her snarling coworkers.
Nastiest is Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey), a self-satisfied, 45-year-old, schoolmarm-ish disciplinarian who, after 20 years, is nearing completion of her “masterpiece,” a book about “beautiful acts” in history. There’s a palpable contrast, though, between her aesthetic beliefs and ugly behavior. The other women include the pretty Ruby Ridgeway (Kate Middleton), whose natural vivacity is rapidly turning sour, although she’s not averse to trying out new American dances; Mademoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier), the crabby French teacher; Miss Willoughby (Aedin Moloney), Ruby’s grumpy roommate; Miss Newcome (Joyce Cohen), the stern headmistress; Ma Hubbert (Amelia White), the school matron; and Marjorie Strong (Kate Bacon), the play’s raisonneur, who strives to remain above the fray, although she becomes Jean’s only friend. There are also three preadolescent students, one of whom, Peggy (Alexa Shae Niziak), plays an important role.
Following an incident that brings Miss Wade into Miss Connor’s line of fire, the latter discovers that her manuscript has been shredded; circumstantial evidence suggests the culprit is Jean, and, for a time, the play becomes a whodunit. The play’s ultimate purpose, however, is—through its own ironic act of beauty—to demonstrate the nature of nobility and the value of forgiveness. Even Miss Connor is granted a touch of humanity.
The play is anything but propaganda for the joys of private school teaching. Jean even calls it “a horrible beastly life.” And for all the play’s apparent veracity, it’s hard not to be skeptical about its resolution, when we’re asked to accept that these gossiping biddies will never spill the beans about a significant secret with which they’ve been entrusted.
Vicki R. Davis’s solidly realistic setting (more expansive than any the Mint’s former, low-ceilinged venue could provide); Martha Halley’s authentic-looking, period costumes; Traci Klainer Polimeni’s sensitive lighting, especially her use of the set’s many lamps; Jane Shaw’s sound design, making use of schoolgirl songs; and Robert-Charles Vallance’s well-styled wigs all make highly professional contributions. Under Jenn Thompson’s nicely paced direction, a fine ensemble invests this conventional, well-made play—in which humor, suspense, conflict, and sentiment share the stage—with continuing interest.
Hail to the Mint for Women Without Men, not least for resuscitating a work with so many juicy women’s roles, especially one without any men at all.
Women Without Men
City Center Stage II
131 West 55th Street, NYC
Through March 26
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).