Female Trouble

Historyonics' Ahead of Her Time: Four Women in the Twentieth Century and the Washington University Performing Arts Department's Gitanjali are similarly flawed

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By Lee Patton Chiles (Historyonics Theatre Company)

By Sakena Abedin (Washington University Performing Arts Department)

This weekend, the theatrical menu board offered women's history and mother/ daughter drama with a subcontinental theme. The choices looked promising -- Ahead of Her Time is the final show of Historyonics' splendid 1999-2000 season, featuring women who were neither easy nor obvious feminist choices. When's the last time you thought about Margaret Sanger? Or Pearl S. Buck? And Gitanjali was the winner of the 1999 A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Competition at Washington University. Written by Sakena Abedin, now a student at the Wash. U. School of Medicine, the play is a reminder that there are plenty of precedents for medicos who can plot decisively, starting with Somerset Maugham and Michael Crichton.

Interestingly, both shows were flawed in remarkably similar ways, mainly having to do with sprawling structures and core-level indecision on the part of the playwrights. With some exceptions, both casts were hardworking, if occasionally confused, quartets (Equity actors and students, respectively). But there was a wide divergence in how these new works erred (and bored). Ahead of Her Time is over-researched yet underdramatized, whereas Gitanjali bears the marks of too much revision and far too many plotlines, none examined sufficiently to bear much interest. In the end, both works suffer from a lack of precise description and analysis of the material. We learn nothing more about how Margaret Sanger, say, promoted family planning, or what birth control was like around the turn of the century. And with Gitanjali, virtually no information about Indian is blended into the dramatic structure to illuminate themes.

To begin: Ahead of Her Time asks a question perhaps never before asked in the canon of women's studies: What do Pearl S. Buck, Shirley Chisholm and Margarets Sanger and Mead have in common? Yes, they were all smart and hardworking. Yes, they were visionaries and concentrated our attention on areas society wasn't ready to think about (the plight of Amerasian children, women and minorities' being helped by public service, birth-control and maturity issues, respectively). Am I telling you something you don't already know? Let's move on. What do they really have in common? Uh, they're all daughters, they all married (some more than once) and they all had or thought about children. In Chiles' wandering script, personal biography dominates, and there's a sad lack of cohesion in terms of connecting these personal stories to later achievements of these stellar dames. Put it another way (Are you missing Jill Posey-Smith? I know I am): Lobster, beef, squab and venison are all really tasty. Wouldn't they be great swirled into a stew together?

Part of the problem is that Historyonics is really hidebound by the company's manifesto of presenting actual written text. In the case of Ahead of Her Time, author Chiles stuck to characters who wrote about their own lives, not even using commentary by contemporaries. So the dramatic material depends on the eloquence and descriptive powers of her subjects. Had Chiles chosen one woman to highlight -- or even two who had a strong relationship (think Vita and Virginia) -- this could have been dynamite theater. Instead, we get a round-robin of "my story," nudged gradually from infancy to early childhood to later childhood to college to marriage to....

Whoops -- forgot the stunning achievements. Audience members who may have forgotten the individual achievements of these women are reminded in a virtual bulleted list of résumé highlights enumerated at the start of Act 2. To their credit, these actors do a lot with fairly awkward lines. Debbie Dawson as Margaret Sanger, for example, tells a chilling tale of her tubercular mother, worn down to a frail wraith by the burden of giving birth to some 11 larger-than-usual babies. And Chiles, as Buck, is riveting when she describes finding parts of dismembered infants near her play area, the results of Chinese infanticide. But even more scary was a stage moment Monica Parks (Shirley Chisholm) endured on the evening I attended. Because Historyonics present their work book-in-hand, all the cast members must be on the same page, as it were. Poor Parks -- early in the second act, it became clear she was missing whole sections of her script. The other actors covered for her and even lent her their copies, but it was a truly cringe- worthy oversight -- and the only real drama of the evening. Sigh.

Gitanjali could actually be a rather amusing one-act, but in its current incarnation it's as bloated and ungainly as Ganesha. In a nutshell: Gita is born in America to Indian parents. When her father dies, her mother returns to Delhi. Somewhere in there, Gita goes to college and meets her Indian boyfriend, Ravi, who works in an undisclosed position at Morgan Stanley. Now Gita's in graduate school at New York University, where she's doing work on contemporary female Indian rebels and anarchists. When mother Meera decides to come to New York, Gita stashes her boyfriend (temporarily) and tries to figure out what kind of relationship she wants with Mom. The most amusing moments are dealt with incredibly quickly -- author Abedin has imaginative ideas about plot twists but no clue as to how to build suspense. For example, Ravi ends up meeting Meera and inviting himself up to his "own" apartment, where Gita's reaction is, well, surprise. But then Ravi spills the beans, and Meera has no problem with the pair's cohabiting. And then Ravi decides he can't live with Gita anymore. But by then, Meera appears to be staying with Mohan, the friendly Punjabi shop owner downstairs. Oh, and Ravi's secret dream is to write mysteries, and maybe Meera is ill, and that's why she came on such short notice and why she has to leave so quickly.

Now, Neil Simon spent much of his early career exploring the vicissitudes of young couples' relationships, but he let his plays be about one relationship, no matter what else was going on. This draft of Gitanjali is overwhelmed with the variety of relationships -- mother/daughter, daughter/ boyfriend, boyfriend/buddy, boyfriend/ mom, mom/suitor -- and doesn't scratch the surface of any. When Gita is upset, she goes to the library the way a drunk heads for the corner bar, but aside from the occasional mention, we learn nothing compelling about her thesis subject or, as stated, Indian culture. All the characters, despite their age, have adolescent responses and quote authors (Balzac, Rushdie) as if Euro. Lit has just let out. Director Dana Friedman positioned her young cast so that important moments happened upstage, or with actors sitting on the couch, and she had more eating scenes to deal with than any director should handle. As Gita, Nastaran Ahmadi did petulance well, but there wasn't a lot of depth to her reconciliation (then again, it's not really in the script). Cate Brewer was an extremely Anglo Meera -- at first we thought it was part of the conceit, that Gita was actually of mixed race, but, alas, no. Nick Choksi, as Ravi, smirked becomingly, and Nicolas Montemayor handled the unrewarding supporting role of Mohan agreeably enough. Authenticity was presumably on hand at the postperformance reception, catered by a local Indian restaurant.

Ahead of Her Time: Four Women in the Twentieth Century continues through May 14.

CORRECTION: In last week's review of Guys and Dolls, the actor playing Sky Masterson was misidentified. Dallas Amsden played the role.

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