The theater world misses Wendy Wasserstein. The playwright, who died in 2006 at age 55, wrote with humor and probity, leaving works that fostered a new generation of theater lovers. She created special scenes, and put clever words in the mouths of real characters.
Her best-known work was the Pulitzer and everything else–winning “Heidi Chronicles.” Her very first play, 1977’s “Uncommon Women and Others,” is being staged now at the Callan Studio Theatre, by the Salem State Theatre Department. Brianne Beatrice directs.
The scenario of a half-a-dozen college chums, re-hashing their glory days, is a pretty well baked by now. But Wasserstein takes a group of Mount Holyoke’s finest, frames their relationships around the future, and turns out a loving, compelling and genuine set of interactions.
The reunion premise makes “Uncommon Women” appealing to a university theater department for obvious reasons. But driven by Wasserstein’s idiomatic dialogue, this group of actors made the premise feel organic—and not artificial at all.
The former classmates meet six years after graduation—briefly, in a restaurant. The group immediately flashes back to senior year, where the rest of the play and all the energy exists. A brief return to the restaurant reunion, years later, bookends the action.
Kate (Chelsea Titchnell), Samantha (Julia McDonough), Holly (Meg Brown), Rita (Mish Pothier), Muffet (Olivia Raso), Susie Friend (Hannah Bradley), Carter (Demi DiCarlo), and Leilah (Lynnaea Barry) could easily spend the whole play mocking the tea-time and find-a-husband culture of Mount Holyoke. Or their dowdy house mother, Mrs. Plumm (Paige Ruggles).
They do that, but move on to more substantial challenges—like figuring out what they’re doing, what women are doing, what men are doing—what society is doing.
While it’s couched in ’70’s American aesthetic—Dylan and Joni as the soundtrack, Farrah hair, diaphragms and Wittgenstein as part of the conversation—“Uncommon Women” is not a bit dated. Dialogue develops with the women in pairs, in threes and as a group, and all of it is lively, smart and personal.
Some of the pairings were deliciously funny: Samantha and Rita goofing as guys; Kate discoursing, with Carter sitting in humorous silence; or Carter (who stole lots of scenes in her mime persona) wordlessly sitting with Muffet, who is busy contradicting herself left and right.
As “Uncommon Women” unfolds, we see a group of friends become lawyers, converts, insurance reps; pregnant, unfulfilled, unafraid—all the while remaining themselves. Their transitions—real and imagined—stay central.
Beatrice blocked the action—some of it complexly choreographed—with an eye to simplicity and directness. The well-rehearsed set transitions—accented by some out-of-control dancing in the background—were crisp.
Sets were simple: rooms with chairs. Outfits were student appropriate, for the day. There was the whiff of hippies in the clothes and politics, but “Uncommon Women” is a feminist play, not a stoner play. Women talking about their choices, their strengths, themselves. The only male voice is the voice-over—an occasional history of Mount Holyoke—and even he becomes a female voice at the end.
The action was strong throughout. All the actors respected their characters, and avoided lampooning their foibles. Early parts of this performance, when the characters were revealing their personalities, had too much dead air in the dialogue. But once these Uncommon Women got going, bolts flew around onstage.
The quality of discourse changes when women speak. Wasserstein knew that, and rather than try to encourage it, or praise it, or qualify it, she simply documented it. And so made it real. This was her first play, and one imagines she loved these characters all her life.
The Salem State Theatre Department performs Wendy Wasserstein’s “Uncommon Women and Others” through Feb. 24 in the Callan Studio Theatre, 352 Lafayette St., Salem. For tickets and information visit www.salemstatetickets.com or call 978-542-6365.