Produced by American Century Theater
Submitted by Debbie Minter Jackson
Mary McGowan (left) and Jennifer Robison (right) Photo: Jeffrey Bell
The American Century Theater’s Drama Under the Influence at the Gunston Theater in Arlington (TACT) is a clever compilation of short plays by early 20th Century female playwrights. Once again, TACT has shown that digging through the old dusty attic of America’s theater history can unearth some amazing forgotten treasures. Some of the writer’s names have a familiar ring, Gertrude Stein and Dorothy Parker achieved celebrity status for their essays and social commentary, and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal may have been seen by a select few. Still. their voices as playwrights, along with the works of Susan Glaspell, Rita Wellman and Eulalie Spence, would have receded deep into forgotten history books without TACT’s tireless mission of “…presenting great, important, and neglected plays of the Twentieth Century.” At times stunningly serious, other times playfully whimsical, the plays were written and produced between 1914—1931, a time of tumultuous political change, financial uncertainty, and looming devastation of World Wars. The early voices of feminine identity emerging through this period and contained in these pieces are painstakingly real, refreshing, and quite engaging.
The carefully selected works in Drama Under The Influence relay a timeless approach to women’s lives and aspects of the female experience. Rather than featuring them in a simple, linear fashion, the director attempts to weave them together almost seamlessly for a more unified experience. Gertrude Stein’s Photograph: a Play in Five Acts makes full use of the conspicuous picture frame on the stage and the expanding corners that ultimately frame the set. Her piece, which is more stylized with her characteristic play on words, nuanced interpretations, and even sound combinations, is performed in segments between plays, which helps transition between the various moods, and even serves as a finishing touch finale. It’s a very creative and innovative approach to help get into her work which probably crosses more into the category of performance art than a “play.” The director, Steven Scott Mazzola is well versed in reclaiming forgotten theatrical works for today’s audience, and he has a comfort level and keen sensitivity with this material, from the arrangement of the pieces to accommodating all the stories on the simple yet effective three level set, designed by Elizabeth Baldwin.
All of the plays relay an emerging and exciting sense of self-discovery and also a freedom of expression. Sophie Treadwell’s Eye of the Beholder opens the evening and is staged with an Eastern influenced, almost Kabuki stylized approach to introducing relationships. Susan Glaspell’s Trifles is a masterpiece in slowly uncovering hidden motives for a husband’s murder, while her Suppressed Desire playfully mocks the dangers of over-ambitious psychological analysis. Dorothy Parker’s crackling wit tackles human relationships in Here We Are, with a newly wed couple on a train ride to their New York city honeymoon suite, if they can survive their own insecurities and psychological meltdowns. Eulalie Spence’s Hot Stuff shows off a con artist at the top of her game, while Rita Wellman’s For all Time shows the devastating effects of possessive love for a memory. Each of the plays is well acted by an ensemble of seasoned performers, and except for the Wellman piece that drags a bit, they clip along at an entertaining and comfortable pace with costumes nicely designed by Jennifer Tardiff.
By design, Drama Under the Influence is “a latest installment of TACT’s ‘Reflections’ series, featuring new works that explore important figures, events or movements of the Twentieth Century.” Without a doubt, this compilation of plays gets across the depth, insight, courage, gritty reality and humor of several influential and talented female writers of the time. As with any good treasure, their messages are timeless. The TACT production team deserves our attention, and even our gratitude for digging among old discards and coming up with this winner.
Drama Under the Influence at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center runs February 23 to March 24. The theater is located at 2700 South Lang Street in Arlington, Virginia. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM, and 2:30 matinees February 25, March 4, 11, 17 and 24. Tickets are $23-$29. Call 703.553.8782 for information and reservations, or visit www.americancentury.org.