Playwright: Bryna Turner
At: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; aboutfacetheatre.com; $20-$38. Runs through: July 1
Looking for a nice demure story of a "Boston Marriage?" Well, you won't find it in Bryna Turner's Bull in a China Shop, now in a local premiere with About Face Theatre. It's a funny, profane and sometimes quite insightful portrait of two women who broke ground for all women while risking personal heartbreak of their own.
The women are Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. The latter was president of Mount Holyoke College and the former a writer and teacher. Both fought for women's rights, particularly a woman's right to an education equal to that provided for men, without regard for whether it made one "marriageable" or not. ( "If a man is interested in headless women, send him to France," Woolley says. ) They were also suffragists, peace activists — and lovers for 55 years. Their letters provided the inspiration for Turner ( a Mount Holyoke alum, where Marks pioneered the first playwriting classes ). But there's nothing dusty and epistolary in this story.
Rather, it unfolds in Keira Fromm's staging as a series of short scenes encompassing the years of Woolley's controversial tenure at Holyoke, where the relationship between her and Marks raised eyebrows as they raised hell. As played by Kelli Simpkins and Emjoy Gavino, Woolley and Marks struggle to find equal footing between themselves even as they advocate equality for all women. Marks, a former student of Woolley's, also finds herself the object of obsession for Pearl ( Aurora Adachi-Winter ), part of a "secret society" of budding lesbians who look to Woolley and Marks as role models.
Sometimes the structure works against developing the conflicts. An argument will begin in one scene and then be dropped as we move forward in time. Pearl's storyline ultimately gets short shrift, which feels odd for a play about empowering the voices of female students. However, Mary Beth Fisher works her delicious deadpan style as Dean Welsh, tasked with telling Simpkins' Woolley that her revolutionary stances are costing the college donors.
Moments resonate with our own time of resistance. After Marks, Pearl and fellow professor Felicity ( Adithi Chandrashekar ) get arrested for trying to vote, Simpkins' Woolley reads them the riot act. "It's not a sexy revolution," she says. "There is compromise. There is hedging." Hillary Clinton couldn't have said it more directly.
On a long trip to China that tests the strength of their love, Woolley writes to Marks back home at Holyoke about seeing swans — who mate for life — floating on a river. She marvels "how elegant they look above the surface of the water while down below they must be churning relentlessly to go against such a strong current while maintaining their poise." Bull in a China Shop shows us the churn and the love that carried two remarkable women through the tides of their own tumultuous times.