Marin Ireland in Fighting Words(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Marin Ireland in Fighting Words
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Perhaps the most famous fighting words in America at the moment are "imminent" and "45 minutes," but those aren't what Sunil Kuruvilla has in mind for his play Fighting Words, which is the second production from The Underwood Theater and brings the company's record to two for two.

Kuruvilla, one of those male playwrights who seems to have a profound understanding of women, sets this work in mid-September, 1980 in the speck-on-the-map Wales village of Merthyr Tydfil. It's from there that the real-life 5'8", 118-pound boxer Johnny Owens set out for Los Angeles and a title bout with the more traditionally built Mexican bantamweight Lupe Pintor. On Owens's skinny back rested the dreams of the Merthyr Tydfil citizens, all of them hoping to soon find themselves basking in reflected glory and therefore able to to forget their worries as inhabitants of an asphyxiating mining town, at least temporarily. One hundred of the townsmen were so ensnared by the excitement that they put their miner's wages toward California trips, whereas their women had to remain home and tune in the bout on televisions with only so-so reception.

How three of those women might have reacted in the men's absence is Kuruvilla's subject and he probes it delicately but unflinchingly in this 90-minute, intermissionless work. Mrs. Davies (Jayne Houdyshell) is a middle-aged midwife in whose house also reside Nia (Pilar Witherspoon), who would like a radio broadcasting career, and her sister Peg (Marin Ireland), who's taken up shadow boxing. Both Mrs. Davies' husband and Nia's have made the L.A. trek, with Mr. Davies getting airsick on the flight over; Peg is officially unattached but it turns out she has set her cap for Johnny Owens, who apparently has been tipping his cap back at her.

Given that the play opens in a hall where Mrs. Davies is seated blankly and Nia is standing grimly amid the remnants of a function, Kuruvilla signals that he's not especially concerned in generating suspense over the outcome of the Pintor-Owens match. In flashing back to the days preceding the battle, wherein the women simultaneously enjoy their male-free holiday and ruminate over their evidently troubled relationships, Kuruvilla further signals that he's not only observing a town placing its hopes on a flimsy possibility but is also intent on examining the ways in which women define themselves by their men. The playwright tips the focus early on when Nia says, "The room stinks like men." A masculine aroma pervades the very air that the women breathe.

In the course of the heady build-up to the big fight and the sorrowful slackening off from it, Mrs. Davies, Nia, and Peg dance around each other (Mrs. D. and Nia literally), alternately revealing and refusing to reveal their fears. Though Peg eventually admits that she has actually been sparring with Johnny on secret Saturday night forays to the locked gym, the three of them are figuratively sparring with one another and occasionally serving as referee for the other two. In the process, they blurt some of the fighting words to which Kuruvilla refers in his title. At one point, just after Nia throws a below-the-belt verbal punch at Mrs. Davies, she ends up on the kitchen floor and stays there almost for a full count. Some of the feints and jabs may seem excessive as Mrs. Davies bakes tea cakes in another of this theater season's many cooking scenes; but these exchanges are the play's only flaw, and they're over soon enough.

Since, from one perspective, the crucial action of Fighting Words takes place 6,000 miles away from the meeting hall and Mrs. Davies' kitchen (the atmospheric, practical set is by Tobin Ost), Kuruvilla establishes his savvy through characterization. He's chosen three women to represent the female population of Merthyr Tydfil, yet all three characters retain a feisty individuality. Mrs. Davies is a homemaker who's sublimated whatever ambitions she has to her husband; even when confronted with the possibility that Mr. Davies is a less-than-faithful mate, she refuses to acknowledge marital discord and embraces what she sees as her cake-baking-housewife destiny. In one of her speeches, she remarks that "everything is this town is uphill" but resigns herself to continue making the tedious climb. Peg, having taken up boxing, is a young woman eager to engage a man on his plane, convinced that this is how to become engaged to him. (When her strategy turns out to be futile, she sinks into depression.) Nia is an angry woman questioning her little-wife status and, by scheduling and keeping a BBC newscasting audition, more than toying with independence.

Pilar Witherspoon, Marin Ireland, andJayne Houdyshell in Fighting Words(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Pilar Witherspoon, Marin Ireland, and
Jayne Houdyshell in Fighting Words
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
To vivify the three role models, Kuruvilla and director Liz Diamond have found a trio of impeccable actresses, all of whom -- in Linda Ross's costumes -- could have stepped out of the local gazette. (Lighting designer Jeff Croiter and sound designer Fitz Patton add further enhancing touches.) Jayne Houdyshell is a round woman who looks as if she's the sort who soldiers on even if her feet are killing her; she makes Mrs. Davies everybody's good-hearted, put-upon aunt. Pilar Witherspoon, who's pretty and has a voice that could land her a BBC newsreader's assignment, lets Nia's frustrations and resentments lick at her as it they were mounting flames. Marin Ireland, her slim and limber limbs assailing the air, has all the energy of someone determined to succeed even if the Las Vegas odds are against her. (This, by the way, is the actress's third play in almost as few months; although she wasn't exactly suited to Bill Irwin's Harlequin Studies, she contributed greatly to the potent ensemble in Where We're Born just days ago, or so it seems. And now she offers this lively, precise portrait of Peg.)

Although Kuruvilla may never have thought about it, his play brings to mind another work about a Welsh village. In Emlyn Williams' autobiographical work The Corn is Green, Morgan Evans is a young man born to the mines but discovered by his school teacher to have Oxford University potential. When he applies, the entire town pulls for his success; when he wins the scholarship, the village celebrates because he has provided his community with a sense of dignity, as so many others like him have done in fiction and fact. (Didn't Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson boost the esteem of African-Americans in the late '40s?)

Morgan's triumph in The Corn is Green and what registers in Fighting Words as something less than victory for Johnny Owens can be seen as examples of dramatic literature's two basic templates: plays with upbeat endings that thereby declare there's something to cheer for in life and plays with downbeat endings that seem to insist the opposite. Of course, an unhappy ending isn't always an honest ending -- and vice versa. In Fighting Words, Sunil Kuruvilla has looked despair and discouragement in the face. He's scrutinized its many affecting (female) faces and, using what's he's found in them, has written a tough-minded, compassionate play. That achievement is worth a few cheers at the very least.