Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Theater review: Contemporary Theatre of Dallas takes on disjointed dramedy Mrs. California
The audience was puzzled by both Baizley's play and Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' interpretation.
DALLAS Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ final production of the season, Mrs. California, is described as a comedy that satirizes both the idea of a pageant and the ideals of the American woman, circa 1955. In the guise of a televised homemaker’s contest, playwright Doris Baizley humorously reminds us of those wives and moms we saw on TV, vacuuming in heels, making dinner in dress and pearls, and having the martini stirred and poured before her husband comes home. However, playwright Doris Baizley also writes of the American woman during war time, attempting to make some kind of statement, so that I wasn’t certain exactly what genre she intended her play to be. I think both this production and the audience didn’t know either.
It’s America, 1955. World War II has been over for 10 years. Prosperity and a good economy have helped many citizens find their American Dream. A good home, family, money in the bank, provided by the husband who now goes to work more in the city than on the farm, while the wife and mom stays behind and works on becoming the good homemaker she is supposed to be – the ideal woman. But from 1941 through 1945, our country’s women proudly stepped out of the house and into the industry of war, building airplanes and ships, working in the offices and hospitals, keeping the country running and thriving. At the end, when the men returned, women were immediately put out of their jobs and back into the homes and their former lives. For many of them, it was difficult to find the same rewarding fulfillment staying there, cleaning and caring for the children, detached and alone.
Baizley must have read or been a devotee of The Feminine Mystique, the ground-breaking study of American women in the late 50s and early 60s by Betty Friedan. What Friedan found was widespread unhappiness of women, despite having material comforts and a good life. Though feminism and women’s liberation was only a few years away, a whole generation of women was made to lose their identity. In Mrs. California, Baizley used the ideal homemaker pageant to show us the lengths those “happy homemakers” would go to be recognized and appreciated.
In the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, four contestants are setting up in preparation to win the Mrs. California contest in hopes of going on to the Mrs. America contest and become the country’s ideal homemaker and woman. Four completely different women from different backgrounds, Mrs. Los Angeles, Mrs. San Francisco, Mrs. San Bernardino and Mrs. Modesto, will each have the opportunity to show their prowess in all the important skills every true homemaker should possess. The final points will be earned from their speech on “My Proudest Moment”. Dot, the Los Angeles contestant, is being sponsored by Dudley, a representative of the local gas company. He coaches her to play up her homemaker skills more and not bring up the fact that, as a Wave in the Navy, she decoded a message that saved a fleet of ships. Her fellow wartime worker and neighbor, Babs, is an independent and energetic woman who has come along to make sure Dot wins.
Through a series of small competitions and individual contest questions, things start to go comically wrong as in an I Love Lucy episode. At the same time, there come consequences in attempting to be that ideal woman.
In a clever move, Director Robin Armstrong and Scenic Designer Rodney Dobbs chose to make the entire theatre proper the hotel ballroom. Their stage was the ballroom stage with backstage curtains for exits. Dobbs outdid himself by creating and building four, pastel-colored, identical homemaker stations, complete with refrigerator, countertop with underneath cabinets and sliding drawers, ovens and electrical outlets. Four downstage cocktail tables and chairs allowed the women to display their table setting skills. Properties Designer, Jen Gilson Gilliam, found four identical sewing machines and four less modern irons for the contestants to use. Her use of pastel Fiestaware made me smile and she made the desserts looked glorious and yummy.
Jeff Stover used a marquee-lit Mrs. California sign in his lighting design and each homemaker had her back lighted title displayed above her station. To indicate being either “on the air” or not, Stover cut some of the stage lighting in between competitions so the actors played the comedic scenes in full light and the more poignant ones in dimmed. The theatre’s two catwalks were used as the ballroom’s rigging grid, with actors having scenes above and to the side of the audience. The Emcee’s podium with scoreboard and old-fashioned microphone was set to one side of the stage. Several actors made entrances and exits from the back of the theatre, straight down the middle aisle as though walking through the ballroom.
I imagine Kaori Imai had great fun dressing the actors, especially the women, in fitted wool suit, shirtwaist dresses with double petticoats, white gloves, heels or flats and one clown costume (not telling!). I noticed she put up Babs’ hair in a Rosie the Riveter-style scarf. The women’s final dessert presentation evening gowns were so perfectly period and beauty contest appropriate. Dudley’s suit, the Stage Manager’s pants and suspenders and the Emcee’s tuxedo were also timely and well-suited to the characters.
Rich Frohlich’s sound design was right on the money with a preshow of big band jazz. What reminded me of fully-orchestrated game show music floated through the ballroom during the competitions.
Most of the laughs came from the women’s contest tasks, such as the timed sewing of an apron, ironing her husband’s shirt, or describing how they made their signature desserts. Mrs. Modesto, the more frazzled wife and mother, when asked how she manages seven children, replied, “It doesn’t seem like so much in Modesto”. And though how seriously the women took their tasks was indeed funny, the audience mostly chuckled or smiled. Playwright Baizley’s addition of the war, the atomic bomb scare, the disillusionment of California’s desert dream homes and the apparent entrapment of the American woman put a pall in the air. Possibly not knowing which to play, drama or comedy, the actors mainly played to their strengths.
The men in Mrs. California were definitely written as secondary characters to the four contestants and as the stereotypical sexist male. Ashley Wood was Dudley, played as a man who demeaned Dot as “the little woman” and became slightly repulsive because of it. Ben Bryant’s Emcee was all TV show slick, only interested in his time before the camera and drinking his martini when off. The role of the Stage Manager was more physically demanding and Shane Strawbridge was seen onstage, in the aisle, on the side stairs and above the stage in the catwalks in rapid succession.
I found it interesting and telling that Baizley wrote shortened names for the two main women characters, as if to reduce their significance. The other women characters only had their titles as their identity. Sherry Hopkins was Dot, the one who was conflicted between wanting to win and participating in such a competition. Her character was more the “straight man” to the other women, and only through her attempts at taking it all seriously was she humorous. Her vivacious friend, Babs, was played by Morgan McClure. While her character was fun and free-spirited, in her frustration at not being as needed as she was during the war, she was too different and aloof from the others and I did not believe her relationship with Dot. Mrs. San Bernardino was played by Amanda Carson Green and her funniest moments came with her entrances, wearing almost identical clothing to Dot, down to similar style, fabric, hairdo and even her hairclip. Green portrayed her character very seriously, with pride in her work and in being the best Cub Scout Den Mother she could be.
The most sophisticated and uptight contestant, Mrs. San Francisco was played by Jennifer Obeney. Fitted tweed suit, heels, upswept hairdo and pearls, she cleaned, cooked, sewed and ironed in style. Determined to be the woman who can do and have it all, Obeney was funniest showing her character’s consternation that all her tasks were not completely perfect. The funniest, however, was Mrs. Modesto, played by Erin McGrew. McGrew played her simply, with the sense and true love of being a mom and wife. Besides her first entrance, McGrew drew laughs with her naivety of what’s really required to win. Whether she messed up or not, Modesto always ended with arm raised in a “ta-da” stance. Not overplaying her character or pushing the humor, she was the most watched and most endearing. Her proudest moment speech brought tears to my eyes.
Both the play and Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ production of Mrs. California was a conundrum. In not making a definite decision on either comedy or drama, it became neither and leaves theatre companies to figure out which direction to play it. For me, it was a less a comedy and more a sad commentary on the way society made women question their intelligence and worth, and how advertising and media relegated and reduced them to be less than they were or could be. A short play, it was a pleasant evening of theatre that felt like a women’s history documentary and left me more introspective and less joyous than I’d hoped.
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