Two of the best shows of the 2015–16 season are currently running at City Center; one is a brand-new memory play from an award-winning male writer, while the other is a seventy-eight-year-old work by a little-known female writer that is being performed in America for the very first time. On Stage I is John Patrick Shanley’s (Doubt) wonderfully bittersweet Prodigal Son, set in a boys boarding school in New Hampshire in the 1960s. On the much smaller Stage II is Hazel Ellis’s thoroughly delightful Women without Men, set in a girls boarding school in Ireland in 1937. (City Center is the Mint’s new home after the real estate market forced them out of their longtime space on West Forty-Third St.) Another brilliant discovery by Mint Theater producing artistic director Jonathan Bank, Women without Men, which debuted at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1938, takes cattiness to a whole new level, making George Cukor’s The Women seem like child’s play. It’s the first day of term at Malyn Park Private School — inspired by the French School, Bray, that Ellis attended — and one by one the teachers show up in their sitting room, where they carry on about the students, the endless rules, and one another, and not just behind each other’s backs. The faculty consists of Madamoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier), an elegant, older French woman who enjoys brewing tea and sewing; Miss Ruby Ridgeway (Kate Middleton), a flirty, would-be party girl who likes to show off how much the young girls adore her; Miss Margaret Willoughby (Aedin Moloney), a shrewish disciplinarian who has no patience for anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the system; Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey), a nasty tattletale who has been writing a book about the nature of beauty for twenty years; Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon), a steadfast, cynical educator who just wants to do her job and avoid controversy and idle chatter; and Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton), a newcomer who believes that a caring teacher can actually make a difference in the girls’ lives.
But it doesn’t take long for this wide-eyed dreamer to figure out how dastardly her coworkers are. “All day, every day, it’s bicker, bicker, bicker. Everyone talking maliciously about the others all in turn. There isn’t one of them I haven’t wanted to murder — except you,” Miss Wade says to Miss Strong, who replies, “After eighteen years of it, one manages to become detached from one’s surroundings.” Wondering how Miss Strong tolerates the nastiness, Miss Wade asks, “Why should we all unite in making each other’s lives a little hell of trivial tortures?” Miss Strong answers, “What else could you expect? Look at us. A small group of women all cooped up together with no release from each other save in the privacy of our bedrooms. Women brought together not by choice, not by liking, but by the necessity of earning our living. No outside interests, no outside friends, nothing to talk about but the pettifogging details of the school and all that therein is. . . . Dullness, dullness, dullness, and the blighting knowledge that you’ll never get any further, that your life will continue for ever in the same old round and the most you can hope for is to save enough to keep you from want in your old age.” When someone commits a heinous act, all hell breaks loose as suspicious fingers are pointed and things are said that can never be unsaid, with verbal barbs that do a whole lot more than just sting.
Ellis, an actress who had written only one previous play, 1936’s Portrait in Marble, was in her late twenties when she penned Women without Men, at a time when women in Ireland were losing many of the scant rights they actually had. The 1937 Constitution of Ireland included article 41.2, which declared, “The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” The Mint counteracts that decree by producing Women without Men with a primarily female crew; the show is directed with a fluid grace by Jenn Thompson (Abundance, Lost in Yonkers), with spot-on costumes by Martha Hally, effective lighting by Traci Klainer Polimeni, excellent sound design by Jane Shaw (listen for the girls singing outside and for the pitter-patter of rain), and simply fab wigs and hair design by Robert-Charles Vallance. The set is always a highlight of Mint productions, and this one by Vicki R. Davis is no exception; the teachers’ sitting room opens to the audience on two sides, but its claustrophobic feel echoes the way women were trapped at the time. The cast, which also includes Joyce Cohen as the head of the school, Amelia White as the matron, and Shannon Harrington, Alexa Shae Niziak, and Beatrice Tulchin as three girls putting on a play with Miss Wade, is simply grand, delivering Ellis’s laser-sharp lines with passion and zeal. “You’re a nasty-minded, old mischief maker,” Miss Wade tells Miss Willoughby, who immediately shoots back, “Really, Miss Wade, I will not stay here and listen to such wicked language. When you see fit you may apologise to me. Until then I am afraid we cannot remain on friendly terms.” You might not want to become friends with any of these women, but you should not pass up the opportunity to spend two glorious hours in their wicked presence.