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The Women

October 24, 2007

There are two kinds of art: art that makes us think about the human condition by reflecting the world we live in, and art that makes us think about the human condition by appearing so different to the world we live in that we get caught up in the difference between the world depicted in the work of art and our own.

An example of the former would be Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which, though set hundreds of years ago, speaks deeply to contemporary American society. Steppenwolf Theatre’s current production of the play in Chicago is startling for its revelations of the similarities between the monomaniacal group-think of the members of a 17th Century community in Salem, Massachusetts, and today. Clare Booth Luce’s The Women is the other kind of art: A revival of the play currently showing at ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) in Seattle unsettles us by reminding us how very different life is in 2007 to the way it was in the 1930s when Luce composed her play.

I had the good fortune to catch ACT’s production of The Women while in Seattle over the weekend. The play is rarely produced mainly for financial reasons. It requires a voluminous cast of 16 actors and a plethora of costume and set changes for its 12 scenes. (ACT's production features 100 costumes and a very expensive, brand new stage automation system which drives the slick movements of the set.)

Riddled with sassy Mae West-like one-liners, Booth's comedy follows the fortunes of a bunch of wealthy wives and divorcees on a journey from their boudoirs, bathrooms and nail parlors to Reno (where it seems all well-heeled women go to lick their love wounds) and back again. The characters eke out their hours by spreading malicious gossip about one another, fighting over men and struggling to understand if money is a stronger motivator for affection than love.

The pleasure in experiencing Luce's comedy doesn't derive so much from listening to its language or following the story. The lickety-split wise-crack lines, though as funny as pouring a pint of bleach down an enemy's throat, get tiring after a couple of hours. One longs for more variety -- a monologue or two might mix things up a bit. The narrative is similarly roustabout, though after a while one begins to feel giddy from all the scene changes. There's only so many bathrooms and bedrooms an audience member can take in a single evening.

The most interesting thing about the play is the way in which it points to the chasm separating its time from our own. It was no doubt shocking in 1936 to watch a group of female characters behaving so bawdily on stage and exclaim their self-serving intentions so openly. But in a post Edward Bond age there's no shock in watching a mother reject her baby, telling us that an infant's milky smell makes her sick. Jokes about sprawling on one's bed "like a swastika", which would have been an extremely unsettling thing to say during the rise of the Third Reich, have similarly lost their power to discombobulate today.

Yet it's fascinating to watch the peppy cast, headed up by such luminous Seattle actors as Suzanne Bouchard and Elizabeth Huddle, show us this rarefied world. It feels like The Land That Time Forgot. Sure, there are glass ceilings today and people marry for all kinds of reasons -- money being one of the most prevalent -- but The Women makes us see just how far sexual politics has come in the last 70 years.

Then again, the very statement that ACT makes in producing the play draws attention, at a deeper level, to some basic truths about sexual inequality. In a world dominated by plays by men, about men and peopled with male characters, The Women is an endangered species indeed. The mere act of mounting the play makes a statement about our skewed world. The gap between 1936 and 2007 isn't perhaps as great, upon reflection, as we might think.

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