Women’s Rites


What does a spinster teacher in 1930s St. Louis have in common with a Mennonite teen in modern Canada? Angst— and plenty of it. Like women ever and always, from Evanston to Kabul, they chafe against binding roles; they struggle to subdue— or unleash— their longing for forbidden touch. Birth Rite, Elizabeth Hess’s autobiographical solo, and A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, a late, little-known play by Tennessee Williams, make a neatly contrasting pair. The first looks at women from the inside out, the other from the outside in. Both offer authentic insights— and partially blocked views.

Hess is a charming performer, a willowy blond beauty with balletic grace and touching vulnerability. An actor with an impressive résumé, she shows herself in her authorial debut to be a literate writer who can create vivid pictures onstage. But like many fledgling authors peering out from their own maelstrom, she can’t see what we need to be told, and even more, what not.

Birth Rite begins promisingly. Dressed chastely in Mennonite black with white stringed cap, Hess sways in front of a pew in the solemn half-light, a small girl in her father’s church. To majestic organ chords, she evokes the mystery of the undecipherable words in the prayer book and the ecstasy of being so near her lilac-scented mother— precious because Mennonites discourage all touch that’s not “purposeful.”

Hess conjures dramatic scenes of being alone with her father’s congregants, episodes scary to the six-year-old: a drunken welfare mother trying to wheedle alcohol from her, a battered woman screaming, “Bastard, bastard!” about her husband. Hess very wittily portrays her sexual awakening as she presses her prayer book low into her lap. “Oh,” she cries, “I could sit in church forever!”

When Hess reaches her tumultuous teen years, her story begins to lose its way. Though individual scenes are colorfully drawn— a funny, apocalyptic acid trip, an erotic deflowering by a studly college animal— the drama becomes just a long, not terribly original story: girl rebels against her parents, does drugs and sex, takes off for acting school, throws herself into self-destructive affairs, etc., etc. Finally there is catharsis, and she’s made whole.

This resolution is movingly acted, but its meaning is hazy. It’s all to do with her ill-defined struggle against Mom and Dad. Both are sketched in with some tantalizing details— her mother, in one weird sequence, saves her miscarried fetus to show Elizabeth— but the two require fuller characterization. That’s the heart of Hess’s drama, and what might lend it shape, which it badly needs.

Director Richard Caliban gives Birth Rite an evocative texture with subtle lighting and swelling music accompanying Hess’s flowing movements. She— and her writing— tend to gush, but both are likable and court compassion.

Now, what about that theatrical expert on women, genus Southern? If Tennessee Williams had written only A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, his name would be as moldy as his bones. On the other hand, for Williams fans, there are enough delightful nuggets in Chain Lightning’s production of this 1979 play to make it all worthwhile, including some right-on performances of the writer’s hapless, hopeless— and deadly— women.

There are four of them. Dottie, a civics teacher, past her prime and panting for love, is convinced the social-
lion school principal will marry her. How could he not after she gave herself to him on that rainy night in his fancy car with the adjustable seats? Dottie rooms with Bodey, a clear-eyed, blue-collar type from the German section of town, who is determined to marry off her romantically deluded roommate to her slovenly brother Buddy, creating an extended family. Enter Helena, a witchy colleague of Dottie’s’ with upper-class pretensions who plans to steal her away as a roommate: she needs Dottie’s half-share to move to an oh-so-fashionable address. Helena also plans to drop the bomb hidden in that day’s newsprint: Dottie’s adored principal is engaged, obviously not to her. Finally, there’s Sophie, the upstairs neighbor. A German-speaking hysteric who’s just lost her mother, she pops in for solace and crullers, dissolving into wails of “Ich bin allein.” Like a purebred hound, she can sniff a skunk a mile away.

Lines are drawn; war is declared; insults hiss through the air like missiles. Each woman has one note; Williams hits it over and over. There is no dramatic tension, no surprise in this one-act spread over two acts. Still, some of the master’s dialogue is delectable. His Helena, played formidably by Ginger Grace, wields her white gloves like a switchblade. Cheryl Horne’s Dottie, plump and vulnerably coquettish, inflates and deflates touchingly along with her cherished fantasy. Blainie Logan underplays the gritty Bodey, but makes a snapping foe for Helena. And Brandee Graff glares and blubbers comically as the orphaned Sophie.

Amy Wright directs this catfight with slapstick verve, occasionally overdone, and amusing ’30s costumes— Dottie’s baby-doll PJs are priceless. She manages to capture, in Williams’s imperfect vehicle, the pathos of these devastatingly disappointed women.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 9, 1999

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