by Michael Bowen
Uncommon Women and Others -- This play made me feel old. I remember when it made me feel young: I was in college, and Wendy Wasserstein was just emerging as a promising playwright. It was the '70s, when phones had cords, papers were composed on typewriters and music came on vinyl.
The largely undergraduate audience at the EWU production of Uncommon Women and Others (running through Nov. 17 at the EWU Theater) didn't catch the script's references to The Merv Griffin Show and Let's Make a Deal. Understandable: they hadn't been born yet.
How are they different from Wasserstein's uncommon women? They are not of the '70s; not from the East Coast; didn't go to an elite private college; aren't on the cusp of feminism; have lost forever the mentality of young people who were post-sexual revolution but pre-AIDS.
I'm not seeing the same play they are; we approach it from different angles. None of us (reviewers most definitely included) can encompass all or even most of a good play's rich meaning. As a result, we should all leave our assumptions out in the lobby. We should heed others' reactions to a play, and we should certainly listen to the play itself.
So what's this one about? The fears and anxieties of articulate women at an elite East Coast school during a time of social upheaval. They worry about grades and grad school, men, their sexuality, their weight, the phony etiquette of hidebound traditions. Not surprisingly, as adolescents caught up in early-stage feminism, determining their own roles and career pursuits within the surrounding sexual revolution, they talk about sex. Quite a bit, actually. In great detail. Graphically. And it's all quite human, sometimes touchy, nearly always funny.
My point? We shouldn't let puritanical attitudes obstruct learning opportunities. When diaphragms and birth control are being discussed onstage, however, you can just feel the backs and necks stiffening in the audience. Arms are folded over chests, frowns cross faces, car keys jingle in heavy coats as displeased patrons exit at intermission.
But menstrual blood and clitoral orgasms and joking about penis size are parts of natural processes; to reject them out of hand is simple prudery. Here's a news flash: in late-night dorm room conversations, women aren't only talking about what's on the midterm.
Director Gene Engene has astutely chosen intimate theater-in-the-round as the venue for the characters' discussions. Now, admittedly, when a young woman discusses her sexual yearning, and she's sitting six feet away, and you're both literally in the same room with about 120 other people watching, it does tend to make one a bit self-conscious. Am I smiling too much? Other people in the audience are facing me. They'll think I'm leering. I'd better frown some more. Why these reactions? And what do I think about birth control, promiscuity, women who choose careers instead of children and the raucous belittling of male sexual performance?
These are precisely the questions confronting the uncommon women both in Wasserstein's play and in the EWU cast. The latter are, in a very real sense, doing some 24/7 Method acting: half the cast are seniors, facing the same worries as their characters. The catatonic, anorexic, growly voiced misfit, Carter, is played by Stephenie Wilson with wonderful and understated humor; like her character, Wilson's a freshman.
As Kate, who's obsessed with getting into the best law school but also worried about what's she's missing, Tanna Peters strikes the right notes of anxiety alternating with abandon. From the very first scene, Amy Lamanuzzi commands the stage in the manner of her character, Muffet: adept at playing the socialite, but lonely and aimless when out of the spotlight. Katie Walsh is powerful as Holly, who has a long phone monologue full of despair and unreturned affection. As Susie Friend, the gregarious airhead who's forever chirpy and has learned so much in psychology, Angelina Herin was quite amusing, though I kept hoping she'd go after more than just the stereotype. And another suggestion, this time for the entire cast: learn to do stage business (lighting matches, for example) on top of your lines, so as to avoid the deadening effects of line, pause, action, pause, line, pause, and now let's pause again.
Still, with such actors, the play remains what the '70s loved to call "relevant." Twenty-four years later, we're still not comfortable with women having public discussions about sex. The battles over their careers and position in society still go on. Maybe it's not such an old play after all.
Living on Purpose -- Cornerstone Christian Theater was founded, in part, out of a desire to steer clear of plays like Uncommon Women. Producer and actor Jerry Sciarrio says that one motive is to avoid the off-color situations of some secular plays; even more important, he says, Cornerstone's mission is to encourage "the community with positive messages of faith, hope and love, upholding traditional values, morals and ethics." The troupe is currently presenting an evening of six one-act plays called Living on Purpose at Uhden Hall on the near North Side.
Four of the plays are quite short, and all of them end with a explicit moral tag. I found myself writing them off as too preachy. Then I realized -- duh -- that's exactly the point. These plays want to be sermons, only with the advantage multiple actors and a bit of staging.
Is preachiness -- usually considered an over-simplifying limitation -- to be admitted as a legitimate goal of Christian theater? And if so, what about the question of audience -- isn't Cornerstone just preaching to the choir? Many people will take one look at the group's name and dismiss their efforts as "just another Christian thing." On the other hand, believers who are comfortable with more common forms of witnessing may not want to sit through a two-hour sermon, even if it is entertainment.
Can Cornerstone have it both ways? The traditionally churched and the stubbornly unchurched, after all, are entrenched opponents. Churchgoing Christians might also become theatergoers if plays cause them to examine and strengthen their beliefs without feeling ostracized or blamed. Similarly, nonbelievers -- if they can be brought to the theater at all -- will respond to theater (yes, in spite of its Christian message) if the evening offers conflict, emotion, rounded characters, suspense and some form of resolution. (In other words, the attractions of secular theater or any other form of entertainment.)
The shorter mini-plays take on valuable topics: the risks of being faithful, the admitted sinfulness and hypocrisy of churchgoers, the quickness of the Pharisees among us to condemn, the mistake of taking in only parts of the Christian message. There's enough humor and irony in the performances to attract even those who remain unpersuaded by all this religious hoo-ha.
I found my own convictions being tested. For example, one of these mini-plays made me question my assumptions about evangelism, while another suggests that sometimes temptation may be for the good -- that we may hoodwink ourselves (with a big assist from the Almighty, and despite our reluctance) into accomplishing some good in this world. In the evening's final play, "The World is My Parish," about the 18th-century founder of Methodism, John Wesley, one scene about a house fire demonstrated what five actors, even on just a bare stage, can accomplish. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and clearly it would appeal to any audience, whatever their religious background.
There are weaknesses, of course. A couple of the shorter plays and even one of the longer ones are comic-book drama: broad acting, stereotyped characters, simple snippets of theology thrown in -- you watch it once and don't think much more about it.
But there are also some delights in the acting. In one of the playlets, Heather Ahlquist portrays the quiet confidence of a believer who nonetheless recognizes her own capacity for hypocrisy. In "The Contract," Jamie Sciarrio plays a sultry temptress in black pinstripes. Her husband Jerry demonstrates a talent for physical comedy in the opening skit, then delivers thunderous, rousing oratory when he returns as John Wesley. In support, Eric Stapleton and Ric Benson play multiple roles well.
All of us, Christians and non-Christians, need to live with a purpose. If you're a believer, seeing these shows will prompt some self-examination; if not, Cornerstone at least demonstrates that Christians aren't necessarily uncool.