Sometimes you have to shine the light of day into the dark crevices of our society to expose problems that we try to hide. With In the Goldfish Bowl, Venus Theatre focuses that light on four women on Death Row and exposes some of the injustices of the criminal justice system. And with recent improvements to the lobby, this little theater, which is “committed to setting flight to the voices of women and children…by developing and producing plays by and/or about women…” is a welcoming place to consider these dark problems.
In a Texas penitentiary, four women share time on Death Row in the last week before one, Professor Phyllis Penn, is sentenced to death by injection. While Phyllis is seemingly unrepentant and guilty of the murder of two of her students, the other inmates may not be. Cherry Pie Muldoon is mentally a child in a woman’s body, but was adult enough to kill the man who raped her sister. Shawna Devine was lured into abetting the murder of a fast food manager by companions including her lover. Wary of giving false hope to the others, she hides the fact that due to legal issues, her case will be thrown out and retried. But, will she get a fair trial? And Sylvia Washington is an impoverished alcoholic mother of seven who apparently blacked out and killed two of her children. Details of each of their cases intertwine through the daily routine of Death Row, shadowed by the voice of sadistic warden, Lt. Rowena Way.
The author worked in the criminal justice system and elements of the prisoners’ stories were drawn from the life experiences of similar women whom the author encountered. From the introspection of the characters, we learn how discrimination and inconsistencies within the criminal justice system have victimized these convicts. The women are oft-times not awarded a fair shake or consideration because of their gender, economic stability or other circumstances. Each case leaves some question of what could or should happen to each prisoner. Although the playwright suggests the outcome for two of the four, the other two are left up to the audience to ponder their guilt or innocence. A truly provocative contribution to the discussion of gender issues, Venus Theatre even has a small sign in the lobby advertising a local book group that will have a discussion based on issues raised in the play in the coming weeks which anyone is welcome to attend.
The performers are well cast and each gives a solid performance. Jeri Marshall is frighteningly credible as the alcoholic down-and-out mother who cannot remember if she killed her children or not. When she delved into her story, the audience was transfixed by her performance. Maya Jackson shows great versatility in portraying both the street-smart hellcat and the vulnerable girl sides to Shawna Devine. Lauren Uberman is amazingly childlike in her rendition of the mentally immature Cherry Pie. Allison Harkey’s obsessive-compulsive Phyllis adds tension to the atmosphere with her metronomic pacing and circling. Each imbues her character with just the right touch to pique the audience’s interest to wonder about her plight and destiny. And Lee Mikeska Gardner’s sweet but tyrannical voiceovers, as the warden, chill the scenes.
Although interlaced with some humor, this is a predominantly dark and heavy piece. Although intriguing, the play can be somewhat wordy and hard to follow in places such as Phyllis’ long stream of consciousness description of her path to Death Row. There are also times where the changes of scene and passage of time become somewhat confusing. But the production, with its simple but utilitarian set, does create an appropriate feeling of the sensory deprivation of a prison, and the performances are outstanding.
Playwright Kay Rhoads has written a serious but stimulating play about women on Death Row, and Venus Theatre gives it a production well worth seeing.
In the Goldfish Bowl
By Kay Rhoads
Directed by Deborah Randall
Produced by Venus Theatre Company
Reviewed by Ted Ying