The short story, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which captures a woman’s slow descent into utter powerlessness and madness, has been sending shivers down readers’ spines for over a century. The woman, only identified as “Wife,” is sequestered in a bedroom by her husband to help her “rest and recover” after childbirth, but the isolation heightens her anxiety and fixation on the room’s tattered wallpaper.
Much of the dialog, pulled directly from the short story, reflects the urgency of the woman’s situation as she yearns to tend her family, including a newborn, while slowly succumbing to desolate feelings and thoughts. She writes in journals to help process events, clear her mind, and confront her hallucinations, but her husband regards them as threatening and orders them destroyed. Without recourse or release, “Wife” has nowhere to spiral but straight downward.
This debut chamber musical from Pallas Theatre Collective has a terrific cast. Justin Calhoun as husband John has a melodious tenor voice and delivers a wonderful performance as he transitions between being attentive, perplexed, exasperated, charming and demanding in layers and stages. His controlling paternalism would get him slapped, shaken and stirred today, but at the turn of the century, he was probably as good as it gets.
Caroline Brent as John’s sister Jennie, is also an accomplished singer and tenderly portrays her character’s care for the family. She helps with the baby (a real, gorgeous and ready-for-her-close-up infant), and her number “I Look Up to You,” relays Jennie’s sincere affection and respect for her distraught sister-in-law.
Ty Hallmark, Pallas Theatre’s Artistic Director, plays wife with plenty of verve. It takes a lot to throw down the gauntlet and get back on the boards, as Hallmark has done here, but to also portray the emotional turmoil of a piece like this through song takes some special heft. Hallmark commands ever scene even when she’s crawling on all fours in full-throttled desperation.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
Closes Sunday, July 6
Pallas Theatre Collective at
Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Road, SE
Details and Tickets
Book and lyrics writer Lane Williamson captures the conflicted characters perfectly as they tip toe around what no one wants to accept. The music by Sarah Taylor Ellis is hauntingly beautiful—the melodies carry a sense of foreboding in cautious passages while, in others, cresting with care and hope. From the opening number “It’ll All Be Better Now” to the final rendition, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the music stays in alignment with the various messages and propels the story along nicely under the direction of Tracey Elaine Chessum.
There are so many ways that a story like “Yellow Wallpaper,” first published in 1892, can be demolished in the transfer to another medium— the tonality of the music must match the tone of the piece which shifts and twists and turns like a deteriorating mental state. The young Pallas creative team and crew got it right, so much so that I sought out the story (free online) for another reading, just to reflect on the original source—it’s just as chilling, and with the music and images from the production in mind, it grips to the core.
The Yellow Wallpaper . Based on a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman . Book and Lyrics by Lane Williamson . Music by Sarah Taylor Ellis . Directed by Tracey Elaine Chessum . Produced by Pallas Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson