By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critics
Several years back, the Maidenform Company ran an ad campaign featuring a woman wearing only her scanty Maidenform underthings on the street, or in a field, maybe a hospital or some other place incongruous with her near nudity. The ad tag line read: “You never know where the Maidenform woman will turn up next.” Honestly, it’s a wonder that women haven’t risen up and slaughtered everyone else in their beds decades ago.
I was thinking a lot about the surprising appearance of an unexpected woman – and, as a matter of fact, women overthrowing the world – watching British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1982 comedy/drama Top Girls at Little Lake Theatre.
Top Girls continues through June 1. Little Lake Theatre, Canonsburg. 724/745-6300. www.littlelaketheatre.org
I adore Churchill, and hold Little Lake in high regard as well, but what this community theater in McMurray was doing presenting a radical, socialist, feminist, postmodern playwright on a stage more reliably home to studiously avoided apolitical theater was anybody’s guess.
But whatever the reason I was happy to be there because I consider Top Girls to be one of the best plays written by someone I consider one of the world’s greatest living playwrights.
The play is set in Mrs. Thatcher’s England and centers on Marlene, a fiercely competitive and excessively capable woman who has just been named managing director of an employment agency … over one of the male managers. We watch Marlene at work as well as eavesdrop on a few of the interview sessions with some of the other female agents and their prospective job applicants. Marlene’s focus is almost entirely on her work and has jettisoned many elements of her “humanness” to rise to the top of her profession.
One area of major negation has been her family. We watch Marlene’s interactions with her sister, Joyce, and her niece Angie. Marlene is, basically, an outsider to them and there’s an untapped reservoir of bitterness, resentment and angry just bubbling underneath.
Meanwhile back on the job front, Marlene decides to celebrate her promotion – and this is a classic Churchill bit of surrealism – by hosting a dinner with historical and fictional women from the past; Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, Patient Griselda – a character from Chaucer, Lady Nijo – a 13th century Japanese concubine and Buddhist nun, Pope Joan – a woman who dressed as a man and served as Pope in 856 and Dull Gret – the subject of a Breughel painting.
Of course, this is Churchill so the above outline is considerably more linear than the actual play. Churchill skips back and forth through time and it’s not immediately clear what Churchill’s focus is and what her story is about. The show opens with the dinner party and closes with a scene between Marlene and Joyce, occurring a year earlier, which includes a scalding takedown of Thatcher’s heartless Tory politics.
As mentioned above, not really the sort of show you expect to find at a theater with such mindless nonsense as Boeing Boeing and Over the Tavern in the same season. More to the point, it’s not a production you expect to find done this well at any theater.
Director Ponny Conomos Jahn has done an extraordinary job of bringing Top Girls to life onstage at Little Lake Theatre. This is an intricate, archly specific and highly demanding script requiring enormous intelligence and highly skilled actresses to pull off, and Jahn’s got it all.
Under her direction, this standout cast forms an ensemble of incredible, collective power placing Churchill’s voice and vision center stage. Kauleen Cloutier leads as Marlene with Leah Hillgrove, Jillian Lesaca, Rebecca Herron, Jennifer Sinatra, Carley Adams, Sadie Crow, Amanda DeConciliis Weber, Jena Oberg and Erika Krenn filling out every inch of this complex and amazingly theatrical experience which speaks an even more urgent message than it did when it was first written.
In interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that the Little Lake audience with whom I saw the show may not have fully embraced Churchill’s play and this spot on production as much as I did – I noticed lots of folks checking the time on their phones during the second act – but those looking for mindless entertainment can take heart, Over the Tavern’s just around the corner.