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Geraldine Hughes in Belfast Blues
(Photo © Jane Harper)
Now that the myriad Women Center Stage presentations have ended, the temptation is strong to make an all-encompassing comment about the state of theater writing on women, yet the justification for issuing such a summation is weak. The offerings -- written by women and men, performed by women and men, and in at least one instance performed by men as women -- were too all over the yard and the globe.

Since I figured a sampling of the productions might give some idea of where things stand, I only went to four events. Two of them -- Spencer Wertheimer's Your Simone and Jodi Rothe's Martha Mitchell Speaks -- turned out to be readings, although the latter seemed ready for production whereas the former appeared to be a work still in progress.

Perhaps on the basis of the two additional evenings I spent at Geraldine Hughes's Belfast Blues monologue and dramatizations of a Carson McCullers short story and two short stories by Clay McLeod Chapman, I can issue this general remark on the offerings: Women were depicted as profoundly mired in the human condition. (Of course, this could be said about almost every play with female characters that has been written since Sophocles's Electra and Euripides's Medea.)

As it is Republican National Convention week, maybe Jodi Rothe's portrait of Martha Mitchell (Patricia Barry) talking volumes on her pink princess phone is the place to start. With husband John Mitchell (Bill Buell) sitting behind her and also behind a picture frame, the mincing-no-words Martha discusses life as the attorney general's spouse and, in particular, her attempts to set the record straight on the Watergate scandal. That picture frame, by the way, is a nice touch because it implies that John Mitchell was framed -- or, at least, took the fall for his dissembling boss, Richard Nixon.

Because Martha was a gossip, Rothe ran the risk of making her piece simply a colorful eavesdrop on one of Helen Thomas's most important sources, but this playwright is shrewder than that. She makes the point that Martha Mitchell aired her views in a man's world, and that even though she did what she did out of loyalty to the man she loved, she still lost him. During the piece, Martha alludes to Cassandra's ignored Trojan War predictions, which is Rothe's way of reminding people of the close connection between Mitchell and Sophocles's Cassandra.

Geraldine Hughes tells her own story as part of Women Center Stage. It's the depressing yet uplifting tale of how one girl overcame her constricting childhood as a Belfast Catholic. Raised by decent parents, Hughes received the kind of education meant to keep a girl in her place; but it was her good fortune to have been cast, when still a schoolgirl, in the Hollywood project Children in the Crossfire. The experience awakened her to a world outside a circumscribed life that included her mother changing the kids' names when shopping on the Protestant side of the Belfast divide.

In the course of reviewing years spent in squalid surroundings, where she was witness to one defenestration caused by Troubles despair, Hughes impersonates 23 other characters and vivifies an entire embattled city. The most memorable supporting players are her valiant mother, her persevering father, a squinty-eyed pub proprietor, and a chain-smoking neighbor. By the end, much gallantry -- not the least her own -- has been displayed.

Carson McCullers may have been the perfectly understandable reason why most patrons collected for the Wunderkind program, its collective title taken from the autobiographical piece that was McCullers's first published story; the author was 19, writing about her decision not to pursue a career as a concert pianist. (It's painfully ironic that, years later, she lost the use of all but one finger.) Playing the eponymous figure, Polly Lee was appropriately a nervous wreck as she faced her unseen teacher in a session that determined her future. Lucky for the rest of us that, while McCullers realized she was too fragile for a concert career, she had the intestinal strength to pursue fiction writing.

If McCullers was the night's lure, the Clay McLeod Chapman pieces provided the real reason for staying. Building a tidy reputation for his command of the macabre, Chapman packs a good deal of adolescent-girl-like dawning sexuality into The Wheels on the Bus Go; here, Tracy Weber deftly acted the role of a deaf girl and Kate Bailey signed vigorously. Even more impressive was Jewish Mothers, in which Bradford Louryk and Chapman himself put on long skirts to play, respectively and in sequence, Judith carrying out her plan to sever the head of the domineering Holofernes (Giving Head) and a potter creating a clay child to replace a son she's lost (Throwing Golem). Appearing as women, both Louryk and Chapman -- as skilled an actor as a short-story purveyor -- conveyed a number of universal emotions with fierce gravity.

Spencer Wertheimer's Your Simone is probably still in too early a stage for criticism. A look at the halting and unlikely affair that Simone de Beauvoir (Alicia Roper) carried on with Nelson Algren (Joseph Adams), its ironic message is that de Beauvoir wasn't "your" to either Algren or longtime pal Jean-Paul Sartre (Larry Block). She remained her own woman at a price. Were I asked for advice on this piece, I'd say that the three focal characters need full focus and the distracting subsidiary characters should be dismissed.

The event title, Women Center Stage, is its most significant banner: It put women at stage center and kept them there for the rewarding duration.

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