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Kathleen Chalfant. Photo by Russ Rowland.

The Episcopal Church, for all of its controversy and mixed emotional baggage, is often a place that one would associate with grace and redemption.  But often is not now–nor will it be for as long as Royal Family’s WOMEN ON FIRE: Stories from the Frontline is taking up residency on the third floor of Midtown’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

Like the biblical text, Ecclesiastes (and the late Pete Seeger) tells us “To everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

For playwright, curator, and director Chris Henry, this is the time to kill. To rend. To refrain from embracing. To speak and to cast away stones.  By the end of its 80-minute duration, it transforms itself by powerfully promoting a time to build up and a time to heal.

Maddie Corman. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Henry’s galvanizing new work was inspired by her devastating feeling of hopelessness about the current political climate of the United States. Instead of taking the dramatic and detrimental step of “setting herself on fire in front of the White House”, as she noted in the program notes, Henry instead turned her outrage to action and collected real-life stories from women which shine a light on all points of view. Yes,  deplorables, even yours.

One by one, a rotating cast of seasoned stage and screen actors take center stage to deliver monologues ranging from personal sexual and emotional abuse to their thoughts on those who have been victimized. Rarely–if ever– have I seen a cast of women this diverse who represent the entire swath of our country.

The impressive cast is comprised of Kathleen Chalfant, Penny Fuller ,Rosa Arredondo ,Gina Naomi Baez, Blair Baker, Maddie Corman, Rose Courtney, Elizabeth A. Davis, Simone Harrison, Colleen Hawks, Steffanie Leigh, Lauran L’Rae, Cynthia Mace, Ali Marsh, Gargi Mukherjee, Stephanie Jae Park, Kira Player, Laila Robins,Lianah Sta. Ana and Mary Testa.   Each of them has words to share—and every single one is worth a listen.

Brooke Averi, Kiersten Foster, Chieh Hsiung, Musa Hitomi, Kara Menendez, and Alyssa Ness provide slick and effective dance movements between monologues.

Mary Testa. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Since 2016, the theatrical landscape has been flooded with new works and reinterpreted classic works which declare-either blatantly or subtly- an Anti-Trump sentiment. To savvy New York audiences, it’s basically preaching to the choir.  When WOMEN ON FIRE  began, I immediately lumped it into that category.

As it progressed,  I was pleasantly surprised by the scope and depth that the piece offers. It is more than just a #metoo play. It is more than just a feminist piece. It is more than just political.  What it is is the product of a compassionate, rational human being who finally understands that we’re not serving ourselves as a society if we do not listen to one another.

Too often, we’re smacked with a pithy appeal to “have an open dialogue” or “to continue the national conversation.” Translation:

Let’s assemble people and panelists in one room who, more or less, agree with our points of view. Then we’ll pat each other on the backs by our open-mindedness and false notions that we’ve done something important for the world.

Chris Henry, through her work, is actually having the conversation. She grasps the concept that when we silence speech by those whose views differ from ours, we are just as irrational and hypocritical as the foes we are fighting.

Laila Robins. Photo by Russ Rowland.

You’re not likely to find much forgiveness in their stories. These women are angry. They should be. And we should be for them. Like fire, these powerful ladies are rightfully  torching everything and everyone in their wake. Once the flames are extinguished, new life, new patterns, and new respect emerge.

Royal Family theater company has already extended this work through June 1st. Let us hope that word of mouth and funding will provide them the support they need to take this show to the next level. It deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone who is concerned about our fractured state of America.

Royal Family’s WOMEN ON FIRE: Stories from the Frontlines plays through June 1st. Performance Times Vary. 145 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th ave, 3rd Floor of Church of St. Mary the Virgin. For more info, visit:  www.royalfamilyproductions.org

 

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