Churchill Drama Returns to the Studio Theatre
Caryl Churchill’s Far Away is probably my favorite contemporary drama. Years ago I saw a production of it onstage at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. Naturally I’m going to jump at the chance to see anything written by her. This month, Renaissance Theaterworks stages Churchill’s 1982 comic drama Top Girls. It’s being staged in the same space I saw Far Away all those years ago. Cassandra Bissell plays an executive Londoner working for an employment agency. Having just been promoted, she celebrates with a dinner party featuring successful, largely forgotten characters from throughout history. After the party, we see her at the office and learn a bit about her past in a story that explores the psyche of an upwardly mobile woman in Thatcher’s England.
A Dream Cast Directed by Fete
Churchill’s all-woman cast allows for a wide range of actresses. Directed by Susan Fete, the cast of the Renaissance production features some of the best actresses from nearly every contemporary generation of Milwaukee theatre. Many of them are present in the opening dinner party. Jenny Wanasek is elegantly charming as the nineteenth-century English explorer Isabella Bird. Mary MacDonald Kerr commands a strikingly casual sense of authority as the a fictitious ninth-century female pope. Rachel Zientek is boldly silent as a a gruff Flemish folk hero named Dull Gret. Grace DeWolff is calmly radiant as Patient Griselda, who shows-up a bit late to the party. (This is probably the biggest departure for any of the established Milwaukee actresses in the play. I don’t ever recall seeing DeWolff play Calmly Radiant before. It’s an energy she handles as deftly as the more active dynamic she always wields so well.) In addition to this there’s the welcome addition of Chicago-based actress Karissa Murrell Myers in the role of 13th century Japanese concubine Lady Nijō. The dinner party casually rolls along in a gorgeously luminescent set by designer Stephen Hudson-Mairet. It’s a deeply-engaging intro. The conversation gradually meanders into the matter of motherhood, which nearly everyone at the party has experienced in a distinctly different way. This sets-up the focus of the drama’s four remaining scenes.
The Other Four Scenes
The strangely fantastic dinner party fades-out in favor of a very earthbound quartet of scenes which focus on a couple of different characters. Cassandra Bissell is Marlene--the incredibly together upwardly mobile Londoner who works for Top Girls Employment Agency. Her story is paired against that of a fearless, young girl named Angie, played with great childlike exuberance by Elyse Edelman. We first see her in the play’s third scene in a back yard blanket fort hanging out with a friend played by DeWolff. The progression from a dinner party in the first scene to an employment agency in the second scene to a couple of girls hanging out in a backyard feels a bit disjointed at first. Edelman and DeWolff are delivering a really interesting interaction between two girls, but it’s hard to settle-into a complex connection between yet another set of characters at the end of the first act. The overall flow of action in the opening act feels off, but each scene is solidly realized.
Things are a bit more focussed on the other side of intermission. Angie has come to visit Marlene at the office. She has come unannounced to witness Marlene on the job. The final scene takes place earlier. Marlene has come to visit her sister (played with a very organic energy by Libby Amato. This is the second time I can remember seeing Amato play a relatively young mother. She’s really, really good with the vaguely fatigued momentum of someone dealing with both work and parenthood. There’s a casually stylish grace and charm with Amato that anyone would love in a mother.)
Insight: It’s A Mix
Churchill is covering socio-political issues of being a woman and being successful that have been so thoroughly examined in so many different contemporary stories that it’s difficult for me to remember whether or not any of it would have even been terribly revelatory even when it debuted in 1981. I saw the play with my successful wife and she felt like she was cringing through a bit of what she has dealt with throughout her career in the financial services industry. This isn't anything new. She's seen it before. She doesn't need to see it here. Churchill’s coverage of a spectrum of different issues in the play seems to range from the painfully obvious to the deeply insightful. Where it's insightful, it's great. Where it's not, Churchill's script drags a bit. Throughout it all, though, there's this amazing cast that breathes such satisfying life into even the dullest moments of the drama.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Top Girls runs through Apr. 29 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations, visit Renaissance Theaterworks online.