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Women Without Men - Elizabeth Ahlfors

Women Without Men

Mint Theater at City Center Stage II 
131 West 55th Street
Previews: Jan. 30. Opens Feb. 25. Closes March 26 
Two hours, 15 min.  One intermission
Playwright: HazelEllis
Director: Jenn Thompson
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

At City Center's Stage II, The Mint Theater Company is currently reviving Women Without Men, a 1938 Irish play by Hazel Ellis that visits a group of unmarried women living and teaching at Malyn Park Private School. In that period, there were not many choices for women without husbands, and in their limited lives in a world ruled by men, they still found they were often each others' worst enemies.  

Young and idealistic, Miss Jean Wade (Emily Watson), arrives at the school for her first teaching job. She is in a better situation than her fellow teachers since she has a suitor back home and can easily marry him. First, however, she wants to begin her life with new experiences and challenges.  

She soon finds the challenges. In the staff sitting room (called by students "the Tyrants' Den"), Jean meets Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon), reading alone in the corner. Although Miss Strong mainly keeps to herself, she eventually becomes Jean's only friend. She warns that life for the teachers at Malyn Park Private School is not easy with the freezing bedrooms and only one day off. The rain is relentless and cold and this sitting room is the only fairly comfortable spot for the women to get warm, read or complain together. The teachers easily find reasons to be jealous and petty with their prime target being the newcomer.

Says Miss Strong, ““What else would you expect?... Women brought together not by choice, not by liking, but by the necessity of earning our living."

Jenn Thompson directs with a swift pace and sharp moments of humor, sensitivity and suspense. Under her hand, a stellar cast portrays the teachers' individual distinctions and nuances. Despite the frustration, the women all demonstrate layers of personality.

The strongest character and Jean Wade's main antagonist, is Kellie Overbey who stands out as the arrogant Miss Connor. She has been working for over 20 years on her manuscript, "History of Beautiful Acts Throughout the Ages." She looks upon her colleagues as inferiors and focuses her jealousy on Jean. As Jean becomes the students' favorite teacher, it is not difficult to predict certain conflicts. When Miss Connor's literary endeavor is destroyed, the newest teacher is suspected and while the play ends on a high moral note, it's easy to see why Jean's determination for a career has waned over the school year. “I’m chucking teaching,” she says. “It’s a horrible beastly life.”

The cast also includes Kate Middleton as Ruby Ridgeway, pretty and self-important with a nasty undercurrent. Aedin Moloney, as her roommate, Margaret Willoughby, is just irritable. Mademoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier) is a sympathetic, well-mannered French teacher. Joyce Cohen portrays Miss Newcome, the stern headmistress. Amelia White plays an overworked school matron, Ma Hubbert, and one student, Peggy (Alexa Shae Niziak), stands out with importance in the plot.

 Vicki R Davis designed a staff sitting room that looks well-used and comfy with a coal fireplace and Traci Klainer Polimeni's warm lighting. The space is well designed for sight lines on two sides. It appears that different spots are favorites for certain teachers, like the corner desk where Miss Connor gravitates to work on her book. The solitary Miss Strong likes one end of the library table for reading, others head for the cushioned chairs. Costumes by Martha Hally with Robert-Charles Vallance’s wigs display the look of working women of the 1930's.

Women Without Men is an relevant, sensitive play of its day by a young female writer. In this era, the new Irish constitution in 1937 formally recognized the special place of the Catholic Church in society and religion. Women had second class status with their place being set at home. Hazel Ellis understood the culture and reflected her observations in this play based on her experiences at a French Protestant private school, Bray, within a Catholic society. A salute goes to the Mint Theater for again smartly presenting a worthwhile neglected play penned with insight by a woman.