In interviews about his iconic novel Lord of the Flies (in which boys abandoned on a paradisiacal island begin to murder one another), Nobel Prize laureate William Golding uplifted the “moderating” presence of women. He said they were a force for good and if present on the island, would have redirected the boys’ descent into barbarism.
Would girls devolve as rapidly as Golding’s schoolboys? Men’s moderating presence is perhaps not crucial to women, some might argue today. But the setting of Hazel Ellis’s play, Women Without Men, currently at New York City Center, insinuates something dark about women who are rarely if ever in the company of men. Indeed, they may be deadlier, for their murderous nature seeks to attack on an emotional and spiritual level to destroy their “sisters'” souls.
The year is 1937, the place the Republic of Ireland, where Catholicism, the majority religion, has been legislated into the constitution, and the undertones of paternalism have become overtones. Conservatism in family lifestyles dictates that a woman’s place is in the home raising children. And for unmarried women without prospects? They take positions in schools, hospitals and other places of service or become nuns.
Against this social backdrop Ellis introduces unmarried schoolteachers who work and live year round (with the exception of holidays) in Malyn Park, a small, private Protestant girls’ boarding school. They are joined for the new term by the young, well-educated Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton, who brings her to life with grace, passion and empathy in a thrilling performance), who is spirited and enthusiastic and who has put her marriage plans with Jack on hold to gauge whether she is cut out to be a teacher.
Ellis’s writing is sterling. With its in-depth and believable characterizations, the internecine conflicts, droll humor, on-point dialogue, and plot development right up to the climax and denouement, the play enthralls. Though it is a time and place far from us, we recognize these individuals. The homey character interactions and the women’s miserable lives eventually spill out to reveal how each is struggling with her own choices, failures, and regrets at having no other option than being a “schoolmarm.” Such women seem familiar because Ellis has delineated these people with acute realism, and director Jenn Thompson has done a terrific job of encouraging the ensemble to inhabit the characters with specificity and charged details of personality.
Ranged against Miss Jean Wade, whom the students adore because of her generous, heartfelt openness, are her colleagues, prepared to judge, dislike and criticize this “outsider” behind her back. However, Miss Wade manages to be refreshing sunshine and for the most part wins over the Matron (Amelia White, appropriately motherly and good-natured), the no-nonsense school head Mrs. Newcome (the competent Joyce Cohen), the older, down-to-earth, and direct Mademoiselle Vernier (a very fine, sustained performance by Dee Pelletier), and Miss Marjorie Strong (the amazing Mary Bacon), who has learned to remain detached from her colleagues to “preserve” her emotional sanity.
Three of their colleagues, the fatuous, attention-craving Miss Ruby Ridgeway (Kate Middleton in an excellent portrayal), the morose and complaining Miss Margaret Willoughby (Aedin Moloney is brilliant), and the dour and arrogant Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey just kills it), underhandedly snipe, swat, snark, and snap at Miss Wade’s joy and good will toward everyone. They do the same with each other, though, provoking each other to a carping festival of complaint and disagreement. With their unhappiness, everpresent negativity, and self-absorption, they remind all who sit in “the tyrant’s den” (what the students call the teachers’ room) of the boring, petty sameness of their lives imprisoned together as “women without men,” a situation they essentially loathe but are incapable of changing.
The irony, of course, which Miss Jean Wade points out to Miss Strong in a moment of truth early on, is that there is nothing to suggest that women are happier with men; indeed, they might even be more wretched with unkind, paternalistic husbands they must continually please, and who are unappreciative and emotionally distant. Nevertheless, the likelihood of their discovering such married unpleasantness grows slimmer the longer the fear of change prevents them from leaving.
For each of them, including Miss Ruby Ridgeway, who is the youngest at 30, the opportunity to move forward and out of Malyn Park to a new teaching job or other occupation is rapidly passing them by. Only Miss Wade can choose what she will do for her life, and the knowledge of that capacity has given her courage and strength. It has also cast her as the perpetual outsider who can never belong to this group of resigned women who, with withered souls, spiritually siphon off each others’ vitality.
Though initially Miss Wade is warned by the likable, candid Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon is perfection; I can’t imagine anyone else in this role) that she shouldn’t hope to stay in such a place, Miss Wade does not see the potential for malevolence in the hearts of the others because of her own hopefulness. She perceives her colleagues to be like she is, and assumes that they enjoy their positions and overextend themselves for their students. Gradually, she is brought to see their inner darkness, depression, and bitterness. And when she calls attention to their malicious pettiness against one another, they spew their inner loathing at her.
How this occurs, and the extent to which circumstances embroil her in an incident involving her self-appointed superior and rival Miss Connor, evolves from a clever set-up. Ellis embeds the clues to the conflicts throughout the first act yet leads us away from anticipating explosive events until she adroitly unfolds them with surprising alacrity. It is when the situation appears its least compelling, that Ellis presents the dynamics of how jealousy, resentment, and spiritual destruction are afoot to undermine Miss Wade, who becomes a hapless victim of her colleages’ aggression and envy.
When “the incident” is revealed, I heard audible gasps from the audience. One cannot help but be invested in the story and identify with Miss Wade when she is accused of treachery against Miss Connor. And it is a testament to the well-rounded performance of Kellie Overbey as Miss Connor that though we find her arrogance and presumption annoying, we feel for her when she experiences despair at the destruction of her life’s work. Because of Overbey’s measured performance, we understand how Miss Connor might make a venomous accusation against Miss Wade and submit proof of her “crime” resulting in Miss Wade’s dismissal.
Ellis reveals the power of her incisive writing through the characterization of Miss Strong, who throws off her aloofness and exposes the truth so that Miss Wade may be vindicated and the culprits unmasked. Have the women learned to reform as a result of these machinations? What is clear is that Miss Wade will most probably leave this brutal women’s world to seek out marriage with Jack. Whether that will end up “happily ever after” is a question that hangs in the air as we remember Miss Wade’s initial discussion with Miss Strong about the potential misery of married women.
From the spectacle of the richly appointed furnishings that recall the time period, to the costumes, the music, and the background “tick-tock” of time passing in the lives of these women, the director Jenn Thompson and the superb cast have created a world we become entangled in and find tragic. All of the elements combine to reveal the potency of Ellis’s themes. One in particular strikes with precision: With or without men, a woman’s lot is dire. Perhaps one way to receive satisfaction is in the surreptitious emotional destruction of those of her own sex.
This exquisite production of a “lost” play found by the Mint Theater Company is a must-see. It is running until March 26 at New York City Center.