It's not every day the chance pops up to see a production of Zona Gale's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Miss Lulu Bett. In fact, as things currently stand, it comes around every 80 years, slightly more frequently than Halley's Comet. Playgoers with a burning desire to catch the all but forgotten work are in luck, however, since The Mint Theater--following their production of The Voysey Inheritance, Harley Granville Barker's equally neglected work--are presenting Miss Lulu Bett for the first time since David Belasco opened it in New York City after an out of town try out at, of all places, Sing Sing.
Therefore, theater lovers hungry to fill lapses in their Pulitzer Prize viewing are urged to hurry along--and bring bouquets of roses for throwing at the Mint Theater officers who continue to make good on their mission to drag overlooked pieces out of mothballs. Of course, items that have been too long among mothballs can pick up a distinct odor. Or worse.
That's the situation with Miss Lulu Bett, which snagged the Pulitzer a year after Eugene O'Neill won for Beyond the Horizon and a year before O'Neill won again with Anna Christie. (No shame for Gale that her play is dated; Beyond the Horizon, often cited as the jolt that brought American drama into the modern age, doesn't look so fresh nowadays either.) Not a work of art by any contemporary measure, Miss Lulu Bett may baffle audiences today: what explains the allure a play with such a hard to credit storyline?
The situation is familiar enough. Miss Lulu Bett, a 28-year-old spinster in a small Wyoming town, lives more or less as a servant in the home of her spoiled sister, Ina, and Ina's pompous husband Dwight Deacon, a dentist who doubles as the local justice of the peace. Also living under the roof are the sisters' mother and the Deacon daughters--Diana, having a mildly rebellious (i.e. normal) adolescence, and Monona, a prepubescent given to tantrums featuring especially ear-piercing squeals. Accepting of her lowly station and adept at fulfilling its demands, Miss Lulu Bett--as she's repeatedly addressed--may long to be elsewhere, but joins in the family pact to do nothing about it.
Until, that is, Dwight Deacon's adventurer brother Ninian drops in for a rare visit, spots Miss Lulu Bett's virtues, sees through her veiled longing and, in a playful moment one summer evening, proposes to her. There's a hitch, though--and "hitch" is definitely intended as a pun in this case: Because Ninian and Lulu exchanged their mock vows in front of Justice of the Peace Deacon, their union could be viewed as official. And, as it happens, the impulsive pair choose to see it that way, packing their honeymoon bags immediately.
Hard to credit, no? But Lulu and, more importantly, her appearance-consumed family, do credit the marriage knot. So when Lulu returns from her trip with the news that Ninian already had a wife, the Deacons prevail on her to shut up about it. Indeed, they suggest that Ninian's revelation may not even be true; it may merely be his pretext for dumping Lulu. That's when Lulu decides she has to be open to neighbors about her predicament. Furthermore, she wants to establish the truth of Ninian's statement--she needs to know she hasn't been forsaken. When she gets reassuring news in the form of an old wedding announcement, she throws the Deacons' hypocrisy in their faces and strikes out on her own.
The weird wedding and its aftermath doesn't seem likely to mean much right to audiences today. Quite the opposite. It's the sort of contrivance that cancels sympathy, leaving contemporary viewers scratching their heads over the reason for the play's initial appeal. Actually, Belasco's first mounting had more than appeal--it fomented controversy. Its depiction of a self-proclaimed emancipated woman was so controversial that within weeks of the opening Gale changed the ending: Miss Lulu Bett's A Doll's House-like march into an unknown future was scrapped in favor of a marriage to a suitor called Mr. Cornish, who spends most of the play duration mooning about.
What audiences can come away with now--in addition to meeting a couple of spunky females (Monona's flare-ups are shrill fun)--are a reintroduction to a forgotten literary figure and the reminder of conditions earlier in the just-ended century. Zona Gale, who knew Wyoming because she was born and raised there, was a journalist turned novelist. As such, she could look at the conditions that prevailed for women and turn them into reportage or fiction. In fact, Miss Lulu Bett started out as a novel and became a play--supposedly in 10 days--at Belasco's suggestion.
What ought to be kept in mind is that Miss Lulu Bett appeared in the same year as Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. In other words, the plight of women in small towns was on the minds of Americans, and the national airing seemed to prove that narrow minds could be broadened. The issue, importantly, was being raised, and at the very least lip service was being paid to it. Also, American drama was maturing. Anyone who could show an appreciation of Ibsen's influence and rework it on this side of the Atlantic would likely gain respect. Hence, it could be suspected, the honor bestowed on Miss Lulu Bett.
The Mint Theater production has been done, it seems, on an inflexibly low budget, which means the set (Vicki R. Davis) and costumes (Marianne Powell-Parker) are skimpy, but the acting isn't. Angela Reed has efficiency and feeling in the lead role, and Ed Sala and Peter Davies as the Deacon brothers give solid, urgent performances. As the kicking and screaming Monona, Melissa O'Malley is constantly amusing. They and the rest of the cast have been directed by James Nicola, who has done his level best to make Miss Lulu Bett perhaps not a lulu, but certainly a good bet.
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