Some Assembly Required

The trick, as anyone who's staged a play knows, is in the transitions; it's how you get from here to there that keeps the audience watching. Naturally, it helps if your starting point makes them feel you've somewhere to go. Erin Cressida Wilson's Hurricane begins with a black American woman in prison in an unnamed African country. It rides from there through a series of scenes centered on women of various kinds, with and without men, until it comes to a rest point, of sorts, with its African American prologue speaker, now back in the States and a celebrated poet, being oddly pressured by a female interviewer about her prison experience. How did we get from here to there? Not by any direct narrative route. By thematic allusion, by verbal echo, by a sense of shared feelings, by hint and indirection. By transition. "This is for you in the next cell," the imprisoned poet says. "If you can hear me, scratch your name." But Wilson's prison stretches so far and wide, enclosing so many options, that the subterranean urgency of the message system diffuses. The effect is more like a chain letter—scratch out the name at the top and write yours at the bottom; the letter will go on, returning at some point to its original sender.

Katy, daughter of a hippie and a Panther, is imprisoned in Africa. "This is my hurricane," she says. In Hurricane, Utah, Esther, an older woman with a lesbian-feminist hippie past in San Francisco, is lamenting the childhood fascination with nuclear power that led her and her schoolmates to watch atom bomb tests from the local mesa, thanks to which her husband and daughter have died of cancer. The young woman she tells this to, out on the mesa, barely listens; she's busy rewriting her résumé on a PowerBook, and may even be merely Esther's hallucination of what feminism has become since her bra-burning days: The young woman has the same name as her dead daughter.

Esther's role struggle is paralleled, or maybe parodied, in two scenes set in New York. Downtown, photographer's model Judy struggles to keep up with the gay male cutting-edge camera-wielders who enshrine her only in ways that degrade her or keep her at a distance. "I'd like to be a gay man," she asserts gamely to Ray, the one she dotes on most, "but let's face it, I'm not." When Judy gets naked, Ray scrams. Uptown, meantime, Linda's interviewing Larry for a theater job (its triviality is the scene's devastating punch line). Once the power in charge of a leading regional house, Larry's been bounced for alleged sexual harassment; a self-demonstrative ego of epic size, he's eager to pour out his version of that and every other event in his life. Cagey Linda, who's learned how to play men's games, has her personal reasons for teasing him along: Larry's ego isn't his only part of him epic size. Pitted against men, Wilson seems to be saying, women sometimes win and sometimes lose, but the game is so degrading that even the winners come out looking like losers.

Vivienne Benesch and Adina Porter in Hurricane: Women in prison—or just chained to the idea?
photo: Dixie Sheridan
Vivienne Benesch and Adina Porter in Hurricane: Women in prison—or just chained to the idea?

Details

Hurricane
By Erin Cressida Wilson
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street 212-677-4210
Swing!
Music and lyrics by various hands
St. James Theatre
Broadway and 44th Street 212-239-6200
Y2K
By Arthur Kopit
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street 212-239-6200

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Something of the same applies between generations in the long central scene, which the two New York scenes flank, set in San Francisco itself. A Mexican American woman, dying of AIDS, is trying to make her half-Irish American daughter Latinify her past, to guarantee her getting scholarship help in college. Outrageously peremptory in her demands, the mother would be hilarious, and the scene a laugh riot, if she weren't dead and it weren't the turning point of a recollected past, interrupted by flashes of the daughter's reflections after the fact, and glimpses of the mother's medical agonies. Here both women's identities are literally rewritable, but that doesn't alter their pain. Or their kinship.

The final scene, again in New York, weirdly lacks both qualities: Katy, freed from prison and author of high-visibility poems on the subject, is being subjected to something more like an interrogation than an interview by a white and curtly suspicious journalist with the ironic name of Lucy Stone. The more Lucy's questions probe, the more stubbornly abstract Katy's answers remain. Asked, "Why do you hate me?" she answers, "Because you are another woman." The incantatory end of the encounter—which winds its way back into Katy's prologue speech—repeats several contradictory ideas: that all women everywhere are in prison; that Western women, having won all their rights, have no specific problem as women; that rape and other matters of sexual violence are relative concepts; that feminism has made women more reluctant to discuss their common problems. None wholly true, or presented as such, these notions are tossed about in Katy's closing lines like atoms in a centrifuge, waiting to coalesce into some reality for which the play is only a poet's prelude.

Verbally, Wilson never errs; where she often misses a note is in balancing her scenes dramatically. Too many silent or passive or ghostly interlocutors give the intermittent sense of a woman listening to herself talk, not testing the range of dramas women have to undergo but seeing how wide a range of dictions she can mimic. Wilson's freedom from conventional depictions of reality is a pleasure; her periodic freedom from all sense of reality (Larry's preposterous self-aggrandizings, Katy's casual dismissal of the issue of race) diminishes it. Barry Edelstein's direction, following the play faithfully, tends to abet Wilson's excesses, letting Ralph Buckley's Larry and Gretchen Clevely's Latino daughter go way over the top, or Vivienne Benesch's Lucy become too glibly cold a caricature. On the other hand, Adina Porter's grave, reposeful Katy, Phyllis Somerville's yearning, gravel-voiced Esther, Marissa Chibas's no-nonsense Latina mother, and the perplexed vulnerability of Marissa Copeland's Judy are gems that affirm the power of Wilson's words to take on flesh, when they're believed in with skill and subtlety. If all women everywhere are in prison, actresses who can assert women's lives this boldly are the best argument for the artist's imagination as a means of escape.

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