Review by Erin Hebert
The CenterStage Production of The Women, directed by Lisa Lynds and produced by Lou Trapani, delivers a rare insight into the lives of the most glamorous, wealthy, and miserable socialites of Manhattan—and each quip and catty comment is an absolute delight.
The Clare Boothe Luce play, which first opened on Broadway in 1936, centers around four socialites—Mary Haines, blissfully in love, Sylvia Fowler, the busybody and leader of the group, Edith Potter, ever-pregnant and ever-sullen, and Peggy Day, the least wealthy of the group and always somewhat out of the loop because of it. These four are a microcosm of the upper-class white woman of the 1930s—privileged, not working outside the home, and bored out of their minds with nothing better to do than gossip and worry about their husbands’ fidelity.
The tone of the play is set quickly by a vicious game of bridge between Mary, Sylvia, Edith, Peggy, and Nancy—the unmarried rarity of the group. The friends are supportive and nasty to each other in the same breath, trading clever insults with each card. The nastiness is goaded by Sylvia, the obvious queen bee of the group, who knows everybody’s business before they do (played stellarly by Amy Gustin Millin). Sylvia will talk about anyone the second they leave the room, especially when a hot piece of new gossip is discovered. The driving force of the show is one particularly juicy piece of news—Mary’s husband of twelve years is having an affair, and everyone knows except Mary.
The actresses portraying the bridge club all do so with aplomb, playing off each other with ease, each distinct and consistent in their characters. Gustin’s Sylvia is graceful, poised, and ready to strike at all times. One can always expect a laugh from Molly Feibel’s Edith, whose constant battle with pregnancy is simply hilarious. Vera Perry’s Peggy is delightful in her wide-eyed innocence, and Emily Depew’s Nancy stands as a refreshing foil to the group—she’s the only one who sees marriage as the prison that it was for women of the time period. She’s blunt and honest with her friends, and her disillusionment with marriage is a welcome change of pace.
Rounding out the group is Mary, the show’s heroine, played with delicate strength by Tamara Cacchione. She refuses to be pulled into the nastiness Sylvia orchestrates, and even when we see her discover her husband’s affair, she does so with an almost heartbreaking grace
The show’s leading ladies are rivaled in the effectiveness of their performances by their ‘other women’—Crystal Allen and Miriam Aarons, who make off with Mary’s and Sylvia’s husbands, respectively. Portrayed by Sabrina Roberts and Jessie Truin, these women are powerhouses who steal scenes as easily as their characters do husbands. Roberts’ Crystal is a tour-de-force of glamor, sensuality, and ambition; the meek, complacent Mary of Act 1 doesn’t stand a chance once Crystal decides she wants to sink her claws into Mr. Haines. From the first moment you see Roberts on stage, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her; she could eviscerate you with a look and you would thank her for it. Her character is thorough and consistent, from her ever-present smirk to her trans-atlantic accent, which immediately sets her apart from Cacchione’s prim and proper Mary.
In contrast to the vicious ambition of Roberts’ Crystal Allen, Jessie Truin’s Miriam Aarons accomplishes the same goal of stealing the husband of a wealthy socialite, but she gains no joy from it. It’s clear that Aarons knows marrying above her social status is the only way she can get ahead, and she will, but she feels no need to tear down the women around her in order to do it. Whenever Truin is on stage, it’s obvious how comfortable she is there; when Aarons is giving advice to Mary and The Countess (a hilariously batty Diane Preston), she does so while lounging on the arm of a sofa with such ease that we feel as if we’re in Truin’s living room and we half expect to be offered a cup of tea.
Mary and Sylvia visit the Countess and Miriam in Reno to escape the stress of their husbands’ infidelity (although in Sylvia’s case, she was having an affair before her husband). This scene shows Gustin’s Sylvia pushed to the breaking point as she learns that her husband is leaving her for Miriam, which results in a cat fight that leaves the ever-composed and in-control Sylvia in a tearful heap. She turns to Mary for help, but Mary has finally realized the insidiousness of Sylvia’s friendship and takes Miriam’s side. Upon realizing that she is no longer in complete control of her relationships, Sylvia breaks down. Gustin executes Sylvia’s fall from grace expertly; you watch her ever-so-slowly become rattled by Mary’s growing independence, and when the two break ties completely, Sylvia never truly recovers. She attempts to build up a similar friendship with Crystal Allen, but Sylvia is different now—manic and desperate for control of the relationship (which Crystal would never allow). Gustin’s ability to display the subtle shifts in her character without compromising consistency are laudable; the Sylvia of the end is a weathered, beaten-down shadow of her former self.
Sylvia’s power in the show is inversely proportional to Mary’s—as Sylvia’s influence falters, Mary’s increases. Mary’s development throughout the play is nurtured expertly by Cacchione. When Mary first learns of her husbands’ infidelity, she is broken, desperate, and willing to forgive her husband at every turn. In the end, Mary still seeks reconciliation with her husband, but she does so because her husband is the man she loves and she feels that she deserves the love that she wants. Mary could easily be frustrating in her unwillingness to give up on a man who no longer loves her, but it is impossible not to feel for her due to the genuineness with which Cacchione plays the role. Cacchione’s Mary is a capable woman who also happens to be desperately in love. Mary brings this burgeoning independence into her relationships with her daughter and mother and ends up developing these relationships in turn. Mary’s daughter (a delightfully mischievous Jane Langan) finds the claws to take on her dreadful stepmother, and Mary’s mother (a very impressive Louise Pillai) finally admits in the end that husbands may be more trouble than they’re worth.
Cacchione’s Mary is truly exemplary, but she is far from alone in her skillfulness in this production. A true ensemble piece, every woman in the all-female cast has an opportunity to shine and they do not disappoint. There’s a hilarious scene in which Jane, Mary’s maid played by Madison Anthony, reenacts a dramatic argument between Mr. and Mrs. Haines with notable comedic chops. Wendy Urban-Mead portrays multiple supporting characters impressively, imbuing each with distinct physicalities and thorough personalities. The ensemble is rounded out by Emily McCarthy, Alexis Sullivan, Diana Perretti, Kathy Varadi, Matrix Odlum, and Tricia Franklin, all delivering solid performances with clever quips throughout.
On a surface level, the play and its characters seem vapid—it’s hard to say whether the play was intended by Luce to be satire, or if her mid-1930’s script is as blissfully unaware as its characters. However, this production breathes incredible life and intelligence into what could be a very dated, out-of-touch show. It would be very easy to allow the characters to become pithy caricatures, but this production rises to the challenge of making The Women more than that; they have done the work to make each of their characters real women, and it shows. The strength of the ensemble as a whole is possible because of the clear respect each of the women on stage has for her cast mates, and the result is truly commendable. Between hearty laughs and numerous outstanding performances, this production should not be missed.
Erin has performed with multiple community theater groups in the Hudson Valley. Most recent productions include Matilda and Jesus Christ Superstar with The Center for the Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. She works at IBM as a physical design engineer.