Women Without Men by Hazel Ellis premiered in Dublin, Ireland in 1938. It was met with much acclaim, especially from the Evening Herald which called it a play that “marks another step forward in Irish Drama.” Ellis left a strong imprint in the world of Irish Theater, but she became reclusive from it and instead chose the path of matrimony. It led to two difficult marriages and a battle with alcoholism.
How remarkable then, that the Mint theater company has breathed new life into her carefully crafted work about the inside squabbling at Protestant girls boarding school in the late 1930s. Ellis attended a similar school years in her youth and while the story is not factual, Ellis has crafted characters and emotions with such realism that it’s hard not to take it as truth.
Women Without Men is set at Malyn Park (on Vicki R. Davis’ impressively refined set), where eight teachers are forced to live with one another. One might believe they would find solidarity, given the fact that Ireland, at the time, was predominantly Catholic. But let’s face it: If there weren’t dish and dissension, would anyone watch? Of course not! So, sit back and watch the claws sharpen. Not since Krystle Jennings and Alexis Carrington duked it out at the pool on television’s Dynasty has there been more delicious dirt.
Pie-eyed Jean Wade (Emily Walton) is the newcomer to the school. With high hopes, she plans to bond with her colleagues. That proves to be about as successful as Dr. Ben Carson’s latest campaign race. At every corner she is met with disdain and contempt from Miss Ridgeway (Kate Middleton), Miss Strong (Mary Bacon), Miss Willoughby (Aedin Maloney), and passive-aggressive French teacher Mademoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier) Her biggest rival, however, is the buttoned-up and crotchety Miss Conner, played with the exact amount of condescension by Kellie Overbey. With absolutely subtley Overbey’s face silently screams, “I’ve been there, done that, and am so over it.” It would reveal too much of the plot to disclose the face-off that Conner has with her fellow teachers, but it’s rich!
Fed up with the pettiness, Wade attempts to reign in the discordant bunch by offering the advice that women must unite rather than tear one another apart. Given our current political climate, I couldn’t help but hear the echoed sentiments of Madeline Albright, who relayed the same message last month at Hillary Clinton’s rally. Yet it only causes even more problems.
Hazel Ellis has masterfully captured human nature and the petty grievances that can so often prevent us from real connection. Thankfully, director Jenn Thompson understands them too. She has assembled a whip-smart and talented cast that knows how to deliver the goods; goods that might have been delivered years ago, but which the Mint Theater is now reviving with vitality and zest.
Women Without Men plays at City Center Stage II 131 W 55th Street between 6th and 7th. Now through March 26th. For tickets, visit Mint Theater.