Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton) has just joined the teaching staff of Malyn Park, a small, Protestant, girls’ boarding school in Ireland. It’s her first position. Though Jean has a fiancé, she’s put him off in favor of becoming useful, doing something she’s sure she’ll enjoy before settling down. The young woman is filled with idealistic enthusiasm. She has no idea the cloistered environment has bred a nest of vipers.
Kate Middleton, Dee Pelletier, Emily Walton
In keeping with The Mint’s dedication to reviving obscure works (see the story), this beautifully cast, all female production is the play’s first in 77 years and its American premiere. When it opened in 1938, Dublin’s Evening Herald described “clever characterization, witty dialogue, and a serious vein…” Like The Children’s Hour and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, we’re immersed in petty jealousies and revenge, here both naïve and malicious. Playwright Hazel Ellis takes us further into the minds and hearts of the staff than those other examples, however, illuminating characters so authentic, played with such authority, one is empathetic rather than sympathetic. ‘A terrific presentation on all fronts.
Entering a wonderfully manifest teacher’s lounge (Vicki R. Davis-Set; Joshua Yocom-Props), Jean meets her fellow teachers: territorial Miss Ruby Ridgeway (Kate Middleton), lording student preference for her over her peers; quirky, genial Mademoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier); testy, insecure, Margaret Willoughby (Aedin Maloney); smart, cynical Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon), the only pointedly neutral staff member; and, judgmental Miss Connor, no first name (Kellie Overbuy), who thinks herself a superior being.
Emily Walton, Dee Pelletier, Aedin Moloney, Kate Middleton
Miss Connor immediately informs the newcomer that she’s writing A History of Beauty (20 years in the making) which will put Malyn on the map and make the world recognize her genius. When Jean politely refuses her senior’s curriculum help, she unwittingly evokes ire that will grow like a strangling weed.
Observing these women lob insults at and needle one another, often couched in the ostensible necessity for protocol/rules, is sometimes darkly humorous, but most often chilling. Credible events unfold over a period of Jean’s tenure, giving us a feel for the shape of these tough, mundane lives. Accommodations are far from comfortable, duties over taxing, remuneration modest.
Assuming she stays, it’s easy to imagine young Ruby’s current acrimony turning into the bitterness of older personnel. Choices seem to have dried up long ago. Only Marjorie and Mademoiselle have acclimated. Towards the end of the play, we find out that Miss Connors, who looks and sounds as if she’s in her mid late sixties, is forty-one. That’ll give you pause.
Shannon Harrington, Beatrice Tulchin, Alexa Shae Niziak
Jean quickly usurps Ruby’s position as the girls’ favorite, imbuing execution of her duties with warm attention and creativity. In hopes of extending horizons, she enters the school in a Shakespearean play contest. We watch classmates, Phyllis (Beatrice Tulchin), Dorothy (Shannon Harrington), and her star, Peggy (Alexa Shae Niziak), rehearse. All these young actresses are excellent, with Niziak excelling in a brief, Shakespearean turn. Miss Connors’ sabotage of this is shockingly mean. There are consequences beyond those she can possibly imagine. One rancorous deed leads to another and…
Kellie Overbey, Aedin Moloney, Kate Middleton, Mary Bacon, Emily Walton, Amelia White
The production has excellent ensemble work. In particular:
Kellie Overby’s Miss Connor is palpably infuriating and desperate. When she breaks down, the actress embodies every wrenched moment of shattered pride and fear in tandem with a mind racing for solutions. We can feel her teeth grit.
Emily Walton gives us an eminently believable Jean Wade. The progression of emotions from optimistically eager to frustrated, stymied, appalled and resolved skillfully evolve.
In a somewhat smaller role, Dee Pelletier (Mademoiselle) effects a marvelous accent and mannerisms that could belong to no other character.
Director Jenn Thompson helps her actresses develop distinguishing personality traits. Everything unfolds in its own, realistic, well paced time allowing for thinking and reaction. The stage is used with logic and variation. During this production, one is completely unaware of the theater in which we sit.
Amy Stoller’s Accents (and Dramaturgy – always read this edifying part of Mint’s program) add immeasurably to atmosphere.
Costumes by Martha Hally are character and period distinctive. Robert-Charles Vallance’s Wigs and Hair Design are at the same time inventive and spot-on.
Between scenes, we often evocatively hear the students singing songs. These include a Yeats poem that appears in the play set to music. Jane Shaw Sound Design and Arrangement.
Also featuring Joyce Cohen as Head (of school), Miss Newcomb and Amelia White as Matron, Mrs. Hibbert.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Kellie Overbey, Emily Walton, Mary Bacon
Women Without Men by Hazel Ellis
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Mint Theater Company
Currently at City Center Stage II
131 West 55th Street
Through March 26, 2016