Can a 28-year-old play about societal values still pack a punch? Unfortunately, yes — which means we haven’t fixed it yet.
If Top Girls isn’t the shocker it was when Caryl Churchill’s play first appeared on a London stage in 1982, it’s only because we’ve seen enough to recognize the problems. The current production at Northern Kentucky University is a well-turned out portrayal of women behaving badly, as they take on the very characteristics criticized in ambitious men. But what’s a girl to do? If she wants a career, that is?
That’s a question not answered, but the play gives another blow to the heart to every working mother whose income is needed. One of the things that’s happened since Top Girl’s first appearance is the commonplace need of two salaries for a family to live at a level considered appropriate. Meanwhile, who’s watching the kids? This more modern dilemma beside the point here.
In Top Girls there’s one kid, a single-minded career woman and a whole lot of goings-on that ramble through history to consider where women were in society and what they did about it. These historical excursions take place in Act I, at an unlikely dinner party thrown by the single-minded career woman, who has just had an advance in position and, no doubt, in salary.
The attendees aren't necessarily household familiars. Did you know about Pope Joan from the 9th century, who surprised herself and others by giving birth? Or Lady Nijo, a concubine in 13th-century Japan who sees her role as divine until it dissolves into nothing? Or intrepid 19th-century traveler Isabella Bird?
English lit majors can hone in on Patient Griselda, winningly portrayed by Meghan Logue (pictured in foreground), who also does a nice send-up of Griselda’s values as Win in Act II.
And art history majors, say hello to Dull Gret, straight out of Pieter Breughel’s painting of that name, a woman who leads a mob into Hell.
Marlene, whose promotion is being celebrated, finds herself both thrilled and appalled by her guests, and as the very liquid evening wears on the ladies seem more and more like men at a dinner where the alcohol just keeps flowing. What is it about women and dinner parties? When this play first appeared, artist Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party was making international rounds and striking sparks for feminism.
At NKU there is neat duplicating of roles. Dull Gret and Joyce, sister to the career woman, are played by the same actress, Allison Muennich. Pope Joan becomes Shona, underage aspirant to glamorous jobs. Robyn Novak, whose strong features framed by a cotton bonnet fit Pope Joan like a cassock fits a monk, does a striking portrayal of her 9th-century self helped by some of the best lines in the play but pushes too hard in her 20th-century guise. We really don’t know where she’s coming from.
Alyssa Kotte does a good job as Marlene, her thin face a help to the characterization. Angie, played by Megan Hudson, is alternately fierce and touching. Katie Berger is an unmitigated delight in the small role of Kit, Angie’s younger playmate.
Hair styles and costumes are equally important to this play, with its talk about the significance of what's worn. Shona’s blazing turquoise jump suit attracts perhaps excessive attention, but Lady Nijo looks, rightly, as though she takes an hour to dress; Pope Joan appears clerically sound. The difference in clothing worn by the sisters Marlene and Joyce speaks volumes. A particularly neat costume-as-story touch is that the dress Angie wears to surprise Marlene at the office fits her too tightly, but when it's a gift to her from Marlene a year earlier it fits her just fine. She’s a growing girl.
The set itself is sensibly simple, suggestions overruling actuality. We move from restaurant to employment agency to Joyce’s kitchen with little more than a change of tables and quick addition of stove.
Time sequence in this play does require attention. If the opening dinner party is in never-never land, still it takes place at the time of Marlene’s promotion. So does the second scene, at the “Top Girls” Employment Agency in London, and presumably in scene three in the backyard of Marlene’s sister Joyce’s house in Suffolk.
In Act II we’re back at the employment office, time as before, then abruptly switch to a year earlier in Joyce’s kitchen. There we witness one of the most lacerating sister-to-sister arguments ever put on stage. The strength of this play is how much continues to ring true, even though it’s not always the whole story.
At NKU in Top Girls a whole new generation of actors takes on an earlier generation’s cry of distress. We can sort out for ourselves what still holds. Too much, alas.
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