Ms. Magazine


Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 30, 2015

Film.12664.linh-hon-lai-vangApparently the spirits of Halloween can be quick to respond this time of year, because no sooner did I wish for a Gothic horror-based film that enables its young heroine to save herself and even her family without the help of men, whether dead or alive, than I found one on Netflix: Haunter, starring Abigail Breslin, is this feminist guide to horror movies’ runner-up for top pic this season.

Like all Gothic thrillers, Haunter centers around a house: A large house, full of mysterious rooms, previously unnoticed doors, and its fair share of ghosts. Like most Gothic thrillers, it also centers around a young woman who has become, against her will, trapped in that house. Like the good Gothic thrillers, whether the young woman in Haunter is seeing ghosts or something else or is simply going mad is gradually clarified through a series of carefully placed dramatic reveals. And like the best story in any genre, Haunter empowers the young woman—well, women, really—at the heart of the story to solve their own problems.

Breslin’s disenchanted teen could have lived in any era, but the “Siouxsie and the Banshees” tee and the posters on the walls of her room place her squarely in the early ’80s. Her house, on the other hand, has seemingly been occupied by similar young women since the late Victorian era—women trapped there by one particularly insidious person, first as a boy and then a man, who commands his house even after his death as if it were his castle. This legacy of patriarchal terror is so powerful as to be able to infect every family that lives there, even after the home’s original serial killer has died. Only one individual in each of three decades, all 30 years apart, is able to step outside of the cycle and break it, and that is the 16-year-old daughter. Despite its twists, turns, and well-timed reveals, Haunter delivers a pretty clear message: It is up to young women to save themselves, and the best way to do that is to ally themselves with other young women.

Fem Points:

+4 for a central female character who is a badass teen but has nothing at all to do with Katniss Everdeen

+2 for getting that when teenage girls describe their experiences, they may sound crazy, but they are actually the only ones speaking the truth

By contrast, there’s at least one on-demand film that you can, without a doubt, not waste your time on this year. The Hole has all of the promise that Haunter lives up to, yet falls far, far short. Obviously scripted to appeal to Gen Xers in its depiction of a modern-day latch-key kid and the vaseline-y looks of many of the shots, The Hole could have been an endearing film about a family making do in circumstances they didn’t foresee. Instead, it merely re-indicts single moms for opening up a hole for evil to enter and destroy their children (get it? open up a hole?). If it weren’t for the eldest male child in this family, no fewer than three teenagers would have lost their lives before the adult in charge so much as noticed. Note to filmmakers: I am a member of Gen X, and guess what, we lived! Even the ones who had divorced parents! They did not die by anything that came out of or went into their mother’s holes!

Fem Points:

-4 points for making something that should have been easy such a failure instead

-2 points for use of sexy-teenage-girl-next-door trope without any commentary at all

-A million for dissing single moms

If you can only watch one horror movie this season, the winner is clear: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not only written and directed by a woman, but it’s also truly suspenseful, conscious of all the tropes it evokes while still being truly original, and … did I mention written and directed by a woman?

Fem Points:

A jillion bazillion

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Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 28, 2015

crimson-peak-posterAuthor’s Note: If the thing that scares you most is disagreement among feminists, you might not want to read this post—fellow feminist film buff Natalie Wilson gave this movie a glowing review on the Ms. Blog last week. Surely a well-cast hex or two will bring Ms. Wilson over to my side…

I am the first to admit that I set myself up for disappointment with every Guillermo del Toro movie I see by setting my expectations based on Pan’s Labyrinth. It would be hard to repeat such a success, and he hasn’t done so since. Nevertheless, I keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I’m not saying Crimson Peak was bad. Actually, I thought it was pretty good. But it is about half an hour too long and, contrary to Natalie Wilson’s insightful review, for me it falls prey to too many sexist tropes to live up to Pan’s Labyrinth standards.

In the film, del Toro uses a horror template popularized by Victorian novels: A young woman is taken away by a suspicious new husband to an old castle far away from civilization. As she explores the winding maze of her new multiple-floor prison, she encounters a few ghosts that encourage her to uncover the truth about her husband and his sister.

Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe—best known for her trademark endings in which the supernatural happenings in her castles are explained as misconceptions fueled by fear, shadows in the moonlight and tricks of the impenetrable dark—opined on the nature of fear in this sort of story in an essay called “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” Terror, she asserted, arises from a fear of something about to happen. Horror, on the other hand, is a reaction to something that has already happened. A good Gothic story, then, uses a carefully structured build-up of terror followed by a revelation of horror to achieve its best effect.

Crimson Peak calls upon both terror and horror, but fails to find the right balance between the two. Suspense, shadow and mystery should set the stage for the horrific revelation of the truth. Too much blood too soon desensitizes the audience to the suspense; if you already know what’s behind the door, you’re not as terrified for the ingenue standing in front of it.

Though Crimson Peak is unable to execute the part of the Gothic template that requires suspense, it does manage to perfectly replicate the patriarchal conditions that led so many women to read and write these stories in the first place. Being separated from one’s family and friends upon marriage to a virtual stranger who transplants you to a lonely, cold, falling-down house in the middle of nowhere was not an uncommon experience for the Victorian woman. It’s no wonder that it spawned so many stories of fear.

Crimson Peak‘s heroine, like so many before her, does have men willing to do anything to protect her, which is lucky for her because her primary response to stress is to dissolve into tears. But unfortunately, in addition to her untrustworthy husband, she also has an evil sister-in-law. Played by an almost unrecognizable Jessica Chastain, the crazy lady who lives in the attic is the real danger in this story. The men, it turns out, are guilty only of doing anything for love.

I can’t help but wonder why del Toro felt this story would resonate today, absent the social conditions that created the fears that Gothic stories originally represented. Are scary houses and ghosts enough to make a story interesting? Or are these patriarchal conditions more alive than I like to think? I don’t suppose many brides get swept off to country castles upon marriage, but regardless of when and where, marriage requires a massive investment of trust in another person, and for some, that can be pretty scary.

So if you want to see pretty cool ghosts that haunt a freaky house with scary corners and corridors, a representation of the fear of totally trusting another person in a Gothic form, and/or Tom Hiddleston, see Crimson Peak.

If you want to see a horror movie that empowers its lead female to make her own choices and save her own life without the intervention of men, then let me know when you find it, because so do I.

Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 27, 2015

girl_walks_home_06Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the Internet around Halloween without being confronted with those pesky feminist analyses of every goth girl, riot grrrl and geek girl’s favorite genre—horror—SHE’S BACK with that darn Feminist Guide to Horror Movies. And this time, she’s got an international agenda to promote.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish there were an Iranian vampire film noir that combines some real old-school Bram Stoker horror with a commentary on the gendered nature of the danger of walking the streets at night in Iran but also offers a visually stunning representation of violence that simultaneously valorizes and undermines drug/mafia culture in a style that can only be described as Tarantino-esque?”

Good news! There is! It’s called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; it’s written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and it’s available on Netflix. The film successfully blends the shadowy landscapes of Gothic novels, the humor of post-modern horror movies and the nightmare-dreamscape of a Hitchcock film. This is not to say the film is derivative—it is in fact far more than the sum of its parts.

Fem Points:

+4 for successful gender-flipping of Gothic vampire tropes

+2 for a total absence of vampires that sparkle in the sun

+1 for humor of the self-referential Wes Craven (may he RIP) sort

+A million for representations of desire that deal simultaneously with its dangers and its pleasures

If vampire movies aren’t your thing, this holiday season you might find yourself wondering, “What other sort of horror film might I view to celebrate the occasion that would not so totally offend my feminist sensibilities that I can’t enjoy the film?”

Might I suggest the New Zealand thriller Housebound. Multiple plot twists will keep you on the edge of your seat—even if you have to pause to make microwave popcorn halfway through—and the evolution of the mother-daughter relationship is truly endearing. Some really great jump-scares combined with a satisfying ending make the film both an effective moral on the importance of trust between family members and a fairly exciting watch.

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Fem Points:

+4 for a central female figure and central female relationship that doesn’t involve a man

+1 for humor of the just-at-the-right-moment-and-therefore-cathartic-Wes Craven-(may he RIP) sort

For the zombie lovers among you, you might enjoy the Australian film Wyrmwood. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead adds some unique touches to the behavior of its zombies, offers a pretty terrifying take on the mad-scientist trope and gives both the central characters each a hero journey of their own. It’s also pretty funny, and despite the awkward blackouts that make it seem like it was made for TV, it manages to create and sustain fear over time. But I must also attach a feminist advisory to this one: If I were to interview the writer, I’d have to ask, “Did you really have to make the character who was clearly descended from indigenous people a not-so-bright, sex-obsessed stereotype? Really? And did you really have to keep the central female character in what appears to be a see-through teddy the whole time? Really?”

Fem Points:

+2 for eco-positive messaging

+2 for female character with badass magical powers

-5 million for racism and sexism

-Another million for not having any relation at all to Wes Craven (may he RIP)

Front page photo via A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

title_bannerThis article was originally published by Ms. Magazine on July 8, 2015.

A sighting of that rare bird called feminist science fiction is truly a thing to celebrate. It does exist, sometimes by accident (see Alien), and sometimes on purpose (see almost anything by Octavia Butler). With Advantageous, a film written by Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang, directed by Phang and starring Kim, the feminism is entirely purposeful.

Influenced during her studies at Pomona College by the work of such experimental filmmakers asCheryl Dunye and Alexandra Juhasz, Phang has always tried to represent a diverse world in her films and to tell stories about identity, specifically Asian and Asian American identities. Speaking on the phone from her San Francisco office, she told the Ms. Blog that when the Independent Film and Television Service approached her seeking proposals for science fiction shorts, she jumped at the chance to make an Asian American woman the center of the film. When actor Ken Jeong (The Hangover, “Community”) saw the short, he was so moved that he offered to help turn it into a feature, and that feature went on to win the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision at Sundance.

The central character in Advantageous, Gwen Koh (Kim), is the spokesperson and head of The Center for Advanced Health and Living, a cosmetic surgery company that has developed a way for the aged and infirm to move their consciousness into a younger, healthier body. When the center decides that Koh is too old to continue as their spokesperson—just as her daughter is entering an elite and very expensive private school—she decides to undergo the body-changing procedure herself.

In reality, she has been manipulated into making this decision by the real head of the center, played by a (somewhat ironically) beautifully aging Jennifer Ehle. Though this happens in a future in which cosmetic surgery has become much more than a matter of lift and tuck, Koh’s struggle with whether and how to change her body for the sake of her daughter and her career, combined with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the corporation, casts a complicated light on the present struggles of women trying to succeed in both career and motherhood while facing the social pressure to stay young and be perfect.

Not coincidentally, Koh, in collaboration with the company, chooses not only a young body into which to transition, but also a more ethnically ambiguous one (Freya Adams). Phang said that she cast Adams “not just because she’s a great actor, but also because she was able to play someone with a universal look. So the audience has to explore what is it about her that makes them want her to be the look of their company.”

Koh isn’t eager to take the extreme step of cosmetic surgery, so before undergoing the transition she attempts to find work through an agency she has worked with in the past. She discovers, however, that the voice on the other end of the phone is not only not a genuine supporter of her work, but isn’t even human, leading to one of the most profound conversations in the film:

Gwen: Drake, are you human being?

Drake: That’s a funny question. How do you define a human being?

Gwen: Do you have blood running through your veins? Do you get thirsty?

Drake: That is a definition of a human being?

Gwen: I didn’t know.

Drake: That sounds more like a human being. Not to know.

To say that Advantageous is a meditation on the meaning of life sounds cliché, but I can find no more fitting phrase. Both the mother and daughter at the center of the film spend the film’s duration in the pursuit of fulfillment, improvement, and a seemingly ever-elusive kind of achievement, and the tempo of the film ensures that both the characters and audience have plenty of time to think about what fulfillment really means.

Phang considers herself an idealist, and it is true that in this film, to a certain extent, daughter and mother both secure the kind of success for themselves that this near-future world believes to be paramount. But, as with the kind of feminist art that intends to make its audience think, most of the questions about the actual meaning of human existence are left unanswered. The 12-year-old daughter, Jules, (Samantha Kim) states twice—once to her original mother and once to her mother-in-a-new-body—“I don’t know why I’m alive.” Though her mother offers a few answers, and different ones each time, the meditative quality of the daughter’s question and her mother’s answers makes it hard to believe that either finds much comfort in them.

In fact, even the background moments of buildings being blown up by terrorists are greeted not with terror but with an attitude of resignation that such things cannot be helped, and the process of changing bodies is more like the passage of time during sleep than the usual explosive, special-effects ridden climaxes of most science fiction movies. The most gripping moments of the film are found in the reactions of Gwen’s family to the consequences of her choice, beautifully revealing that even in a world where technology has become advanced enough to change the nature of life, being human is still a matter of feeling intimacy, love, and loss, of wanting to understand something that is inevitably just out of our reach and, ultimately, of accepting that no matter how successful or rich you are and no matter how technologically advanced our culture is, being human is mostly a matter of not knowing.

Phang is already hard at work on her next two films: One is a science fiction romance adapted from a play by Dominic Mah called Look for Water. The other is a film about climate change based on the work of real-life scientist Inez Fung, which she hopes will inspire audiences to reengage with climate change issues before it’s too late. She was recently awarded a $40,000 Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant from the San Francisco Film Society to support herself while developing these projects, something Phang told the Ms. Blog she wouldn’t be able to live without:

I am fortunate to live in a time when organizations understand that in order to have sustainable media careers, women need support of some sort. The SFFS has a visionary program called Filmmaker360 that aims to change the representation of women in genre films by supporting women creators, which is a big deal for me and a big deal for women.

Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix.

This review is dedicated to Michele Kort, who taught me how to be journalist and how to live in the human state of not knowing.

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Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

Nicole Shalhoub and Corey Brill in South Coast Repertory's 2014 world premiere of FIVE MILE LAKE by Rachel Bonds

When I hear producers say, “Plays by women don’t sell tickets” (and they seem to say that a lot), I always find myself asking, “Which plays by which women?”

The classification “plays by women” denotes nothing other than the author’s sex, and any two plays by any two women are as likely to be as different as any two plays by men. Would anyone, for example, group plays by the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre with those by the humanist William Shakespeare in the single category “plays by men” and assume that that tells us anything about those plays?

The fact is that an author’s sex does not dictate her content, and plays don’t sell tickets based on the sex of their authors. They sell tickets based on whether the play is any good or not.

Two shows opening in Southern California this month illustrate perfectly the fact that one woman’s play is not  another’s, and whether either of them is right for your local theater to produce really depends on its mission and your aesthetic, not the author’s sex.

Rachel Bonds’ Five Mile Lake—a 30-something life-crisis play about a group of friends from the same small town—begins performances at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa on April 13. Premeditation, by Evelina Fernández—a black comedy performed by The Latino Theater Company—opens April 17 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Bonds, Rachel

Producers looking to attract audiences younger than the typical baby boomer ticket buyer would be wise to take a look at Five Mile Lake. Playwright Bonds says her own small-town upbringing inspired this why-haven’t-I-come-of-age-yet story about family, friends and the struggle to find a home, both literally and metaphysically. Mary, whose brother has just returned from Iraq, works in a bakery alongside Jamie in the town where they both grew up. Jamie’s brother, Rufus, comes back from NYC to visit for the weekend with his girlfriend, prompting everyone to look closely at the past, the present and their dreams for the future.

Rather than focusing on a single protagonist, the play provides a different perspective with each character. Jamie respects tradition—he has stayed in town, poured his savings into the family lake house and is taking care of his aging mother. Rufus, who lives in the big city, is working on his Ph.D without much progress and becoming increasingly directionless. His girlfriend, Peta, an ethnically ambiguous transplant from England, has left her family a whole continent behind. Mary wants to move to New York but is staying home to care for her brother, who has returned from war with PTSD.

Refreshingly, the play does not provide solutions to anyone’s problems. In fact its dramatic effectiveness depends upon a certain amount of ambiguity. Depending on their values and experiences, audience members may come away with completely different ideas of what will happen to these characters once the play is over and they return to their day-to-day lives. Director Daniella Topol says this complexity is reflective of that generation at this moment:

It’s about the anxiety of what it means to be 30-something and trying to find your path, not having a family, not knowing if you want one, not knowing what it means to be rooted. It’s about people looking for individual purpose, family purpose and the purpose of the nation. What do we and don’t we do for our families? How do we care for our aging parents? How do we care for our siblings? How do we have room in our life for children?

Though it may add to the experience, you do not have to be from a small town to appreciate the complexity of defining home.Five Mile Lake runs through May 4.

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Premeditation is recommended for producers looking to bring in more diverse audiences, particularly in the Southwest. Evelina Fernández wrote and stars in this production about a disgruntled wife who hires a hit man to kill her UCLA-professor husband. (The show is directed by Fernandez’ husband, José Luis Valenzuela, who, not coincidentally, also teaches at UCLA.) When the wife, Esmerelda, meets up with the hitman, Mauricio, in a hotel room, her husband Fernando and Mauricio’s wife Lydia find out and suspect an affair. When they show up at the hotel to confront their spouses, hijinks ensue.

Staged and designed in the style of film noir, the play uses tango music to set the scene for the battle of the sexes that these two couples play out. Esmerelda worries that after devoting herself to supporting her husband’s career and raising their kids, she hasn’t accomplished anything in her own life and therefore her husband no longer appreciates her. She regrets that she doesn’t have a college education, and has dedicated herself to learning by carrying around a large thesaurus. Her use of both English and Chicano words to parry and riposte in the noir style is better than that of most accomplished women, and her sensuality is evident as she proceeds to instruct Mauricio in how to put some romance back into his own marriage. Meanwhile, Lydia,  mistakenly convinced that her husband is cheating, also manages to help Fernando understand what’s wrong in his relationship.

Evelina Fernandez

The Latino Theater Company has been creating theater together since 1985, so developing the script as an ensemble led by a husband-wife team naturally involved a certain amount of intimacy and willingness to explore their own marriages. Fernández shared that, early on, the men and the women working on the show disagreed about whether Esmerelda would ultimately end her marriage or not. The men had a hard time imagining that she would really do it; the women believed she would be able to build a new life for herself. I won’t tell you who won that battle: Go see the play.

Since 1990, when the Latino Theater Company produced August 29 about journalist Rubén Salazar, who was killed by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department, they have focused on plays about middle- and middle-to-upper-class Chicanos. Regarding this particular play’s role in fulfilling the company’s mission, Fernández shared,

Once we started [doing plays about middle-class Chicanos] that’s been what we do—not because we don’t think the other stories are valuable or important, they are—but our goal is to tell stories of the middle class. We have also learned that the way to approach serious issues with a Chicano audience is with a lot of humor. It’s a big part of our culture to laugh. This play is about relationships and marriage, and regret and fulfillment, but it’s very funny. Says the playwright.

Trust me—it is. Premeditation runs through May 11.

No doubt some plays by women won’t sell tickets at some theaters, just as some plays by men won’t. However, an audience interested in questions of how and why to live in an increasingly fragmented modern world would definitely buy tickets to Five Mile Lake. An audience that believes in the power of language to reason us through our darkest moments will gladly pay to see Premeditation.

I’m looking forward to both.

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L to R, Linda Park as Lady Nijo, Karianne Flaathen as Isabella Bird, Sally Hughes as Marlene, Rhonda Aldrich as Pope Joan and Etta Devine as Dull Gret

Few women playwrights have garnered as much praise and generated as much controversy as Caryl Churchill. Her work has been called feminist, post-modern, post-colonial, Marxist, experimental, irritating, innovative, ludicrous and brilliant. She has worked with feminist collectives such as Monstrous Regiment and at establishment institutions such as the Royal Court Theatre, where she was the first woman to hold the position of resident dramatist. In both spaces, she has maintained her dedication to dismantling sexist, economic and colonial power structures through an ever-evolving exploration of dramatic form. Though she is still writing today, her early plays are already considered part of the Western canon.

Unfortunately, being included in the dramatic canon does not ensure that your plays will get produced on contemporary American stages, and even theaters devoted to producing the classics often avoid Churchill. This may be partly because she didn’t win inclusion in this elite, mostly male club by being one of the boys. If the traditional dramatic form, which proceeds in a straight line from exposition to climax, can be said to be “masculine,” Churchill’s writing is the epitome of the “feminine”: circular and multi-climactic. Likewise, if a masculine form can be said to be concerned with the individual protagonist’s psychological experience, Churchill’s feminine structures deliberately de-center the individual in order to explore identity as a product of social and historical forces.

Churchill’s style, then, requires more of actors, directors and audiences than the typical canonical play. Yet a classical theater in North Hollywood, CA, has taken up the challenge: The Antaeus Company is running an engaging and highly relevant production of Top Girls through May 4.

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Flaathen (left) as Mrs. Kidd, Hughes as Marlene

Top Girls, which premiered in 1982, is best known for its opening act, during which an ambitious woman, Marlene, throws herself a dinner party to celebrate a work promotion. Her guests are historical and folkloric figures: Lady Nijo, a 13th-century Japanese concubine; Isabella Bird, Victorian world traveler; Patient Griselda of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; Dull Gret, from Breughel’s painting of the same name; and Pope Joan, a medieval female Pope. The second act takes place largely in the employment agency where Marlene works. The third is set a year earlier in Marlene’s sister’s living room.

Though Churchill originally wrote the play for 16 women actors, practicality led the first director, Max Stafford Clark, to have seven actors play all the roles. This doubling, which is almost always replicated and is being used in the Antaeus production, creates resonances between the historical and mythical characters of the first act and the women of the 1980s in the second and third acts. Despite centuries of supposed progress, these women face similar oppressions, from violence committed to unequal marriages to limitations on their ability to earn money and live independently.

The resonances don’t stop with the 1980s. Churchill, whose feminism is deeply rooted in socialism, says Marlene, an ambitious, upwardly mobile Thatcherite, was inspired by a visit to America, where for the first time she encountered a capitalist feminism designed to enable women to climb the corporate ladder. In Act Three, when Marlene tells her sister, who has not escaped the poverty in which they were both raised, that she “doesn’t believe in class. Anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes,” the audience can hear not only the politics of Thatcher and Reagan, but also the voice of crusaders such as Sheryl Sandberg , who even today insist that the only thing keeping women out of leadership positions is their lack of ambition.

Not only are the women of Top Girls limited in their economic aspirations, but they also struggle with patriarchal conceptions that pinhole them as domestic creatures rather than as autonomous human beings. In Act One, Isabella Bird recalls that being at home made her physically ill; she was only happy while traveling. Her Act Two counterpart, played by the same actor, has dedicated herself to being a housewife, and is therefore left helpless when her husband’s ability to earn a living is compromised. In Act Three, that actor’s third character is abandoned by her husband and trapped in the small town in which she grew up, living out the same miserable existence that her mother did. Even the maid job she is forced to take is domestic. The audience cannot help but think of contemporary marriage proponents such as “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton, who urge women to subvert their own interests and ambitions in favor of finding a husband, thereby risking their abilities to ever care for themselves on their own.

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Flaathen (left) as Joyce, Hughes as Marlene

Finally and perhaps most frustratingly, Top Girls shows that, despite centuries of progress, women still do not have complete control over whether and when to have children. In the first act, Lady Nijo, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret, and Pope Joan all have their children taken from them. Joan, not having received any sex education, had not even realized she was pregnant until she gave birth in the street. The professional women of Act Two have had to give up having children entirely in order to succeed in the corporate world. And in Act Three, we discover that Marlene had a child but gave it to her sister to raise, enabling Marlene to earn money and enjoy her freedom while her sister remained stuck at home. Today, lack of access to family planning and childcare continue to make successfully balancing work and motherhood far too difficult for far too many women.

Nevertheless, many producers worry that Churchill’s plays, unlike the plays by men in the canon, are dated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The clear design, crisp direction and excellent acting—the accents in particular deserve note—of the Antaeus production mine Churchill’s script for its full potential so that the audience is constantly bringing the content into the present. Unless the issues Churchill addresses in this play–income inequality, lack of reproductive freedom and paternal conceptions of women as the weaker sex–have been solved and I didn’t notice it, Top Girls is nothing if not topical.

Photos by Daniel G. Lam

_JWG8561‘Tis the season when theaters across the country announce their 2014-2015 seasons. Two plays continue to dominate the boards, just as they did last year: David Ives’ Venus in Fur and Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. These shows played off-Broadway in 2010 and 2012, respectively, both transferred to Broadway and both have been top choices for artistic directors across the country ever since.

The bajillionth time I saw that one or the other of these plays will be/have been part of a regional theater’s season, I had to ask myself,  What is it about these plays that makes them necessary art right now? Will they help promote the theaters’ stated missions of diversity and attracting new audiences? Are they about healthcare? Immigration? Gay rights? Gun violence? Unemployment? These are issues concerning all Americans these days. Plays about these topics might actually be timely in New York and Los Angeles and D.C. and San Francisco and Nashville and Dallas and Minneapolis and Chicago and Seattle and Milwaukee and Portland.

But neither of these two popular plays are about any of those things. They are both written by white dudes and  feature middle- and upper-class, educated white characters. And both plays contain characters who work in the theater. In other words, the plays are set in the same worlds occupied by the mostly white male artistic directors who love them, which may explain why they all find them so relevant. But I’m not so sure that they are that relevant to a theater audience that is 68 percent women (at least in London), and they certainly won’t bring in the young, diverse audiences that theaters claim to be devoted to attracting. Oh, but Venus in Fur does have a dominatrix. So there’s that.

_JWG8917Meanwhile, genuinely relevant, quality plays are being written by women all over the country. Deborah Salem-Smith’s play Love Alone, for example, is an intimate play about family and grief that also manages to take on gay rights and medical malpractice. The story centers on three women at totally different points in their lives: Helen Warren (50s), her daughter Clementine (20s) and Dr. Becca Neal, a 33-year-old anesthesiologist. When Helen’s partner of 20 years, Susan, dies while undergoing minor surgery, Helen and Clementine have to learn to live without her, while Dr. Neal has to deal with her first “bad outcome”–the loss of a patient on the operating table.

The brilliance of Smith’s play is that it works on both personal and political levels. Helen and Clementine go through the same thing every mother and child go through upon losing a family member: They cry, they laugh, they yell and, in the form of a lawsuit against the hospital, they seek an explanation for a loss that can probably never be satisfyingly explained. Witnessing these deeply human experiences allows audience members to empathize and identify with the characters, so that when they discover that Helen–not having been married to Susan–does not have legal standing to hold the hospital accountable, they understand on a personal level how deeply unjust marriage inequality is.

In what must feel like a rare gift to the women in Love Alone, all three characters have complete story arcs that make them more than just wives, mothers and daughters. The loss of Susan changes Helen, who had never been the kind of person who seeks revenge. It changes Clementine, a rock-’n’-roll performer whose music becomes quieter and more introspective. And Dr. Neal goes from being cold and distant (she experiences the tragedy primarily as a threat to her career) to being compassionate and able to accept responsibility.

Love Alone, which premiered at Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island in 2012, will open its second production on March 1 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C. Smith shared with me her goal in writing the play:

I really wanted to write a play with a 20-something female who is not in a love story, because I don’t see that person on stage enough, and I think 20-year-old vibrant women have a ton going on in their lives. They’re not just trying to kiss someone.

Smith’s previous plays did not contain gay characters, but as her children have grown older she’s begun deliberately writing them and deliberately addressing issues relevant to gay families like her own:

I started to have a growing realization that as our children are getting older and they start coming to the theater, I want them to see our family on stage. The other motivation was that when we talk about marriage equality in our country, we tend to overlook that the biggest cost of having a lack of marriage equality is on children. Because a lot of gay families now have children, and you put those children in a really perilous positions when you don’t empower those parents to make choices for the family.

_JWG8833I spoke with the director of this production, Vivienne Benesch, about how she thinks the play will resonate with a North Carolina audience:

I hope and expect that it leads to a very genuine conversation about an important topic–marriage equality–that may not even be in the zeitgeist of that community in the way that it should be. I’m also excited to be doing it in the Research Triangle and the medical community, because they understand the ethical tightrope that medical professionals have to walk.

Relevance to the community in which it is being produced? Check. Written by a woman, featuring women characters that can be cast with any ethnicity and therefore add diversity to a theater’s season? Check. Appeal to a young audience by featuring live rock music and projected music videos? Check. No wonder artistic director Joseph Haj decided to produce it. He put it this way:

Deborah’s play is beautiful. Full stop. That’s why we programmed it. It offers aesthetic diversity, a diversity in point-of-view and diversity in style from much of our other work. We’d be crazy not to want that for ourselves. It’s actually that simple. Running a theater is monstrously difficult. Including women and people of color as playwrights and directors is not one of the hard parts of the job.

PlayMaker’s 2014-2015 season includes 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog and Trouble in Mind by the late Alice Childress, who is African American as well as a woman. Of course the season also includes Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. Given Haj’s genuine dedication to diversity, maybe at least he, unlike everyone else across the country, won’t cast it entirely with white folks.

Love Alone runs through March 16.

Photos by Jon Gardiner

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