Can Judith Ivey drawl like a tipsy Southern matron? Wha, yes, dahlin’. Can she stiffen her back and clip her syllables like an aging Boston Brahmin? Most assuredly, sir. In Irene O’Garden’s Women on Fire, Ivey can twist her features and tongue into the expressions and cadences of a ghetto black woman, a New York hippie, and an aged Appalachian revivalist. She can even—occasionally—render the playwright’s overwrought phrases into natural-sounding speech.
A dozen American women speak in this sometimes tedious one-woman show. Ranging in age from twentysomething to over 90 they ruminate on mothers, daughters, careers, faith, politics, and shopping. Men exist, for the most part, merely as bystanders.
On a nearly bare stage furnished with a banner for backdrop and a chair, Ivey insinuates herself into these women’s skins. An Irish American spinster unburdens herself in the confessional about the bitch mother she nurses. An ad executive postures for her shrink. A suburban yenta advises her niece about love and shopping over strawberry daiquiris.
In the best of these vignettes, Ivey projects a fervor that bursts the bounds of the spoken words. Lydia, a dying Southern mother, drink in one hand and tape recorder in the other, spills her apologia for her daughter’s upbringing. With one shoe falling off and her torso limp, she confides that she toughened the girl up to become a great writer like Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. “I don’t know what I thought was more important than a child’s love,” she laments—in a line Ivey infuses with searing regret.
Lydia’s monologue is one of the few written in straightforward language. More typical of the playwright’s style is the laborious metaphor with which Rita recounts a long-ago abortion. Declaring that she made the right choice, she also speaks of the brief ecstasy of feeling life inside her: “I love my living flicker, who gave me the gift of all biology like a bouquet and accepted its departure as a peony its cutting.” Ivey rescues this heavy-handed rhetoric with a rending catch in her voice. But the actress does not so inspirit all the portraits, and some of her choices come across as clichéd as the characters themselves—the genteel political activist, for example, whom Ivey plays like a doddering Kate Hepburn, complete with bobbing chin.
Despite Mary B. Robinson’s dynamic direction, the monologues lack drama. Many deliver their revelations toward the end—a structure that quickly becomes formulaic. Cumulatively, there’s no payoff. For all its overheated prose, Women on Fire fails to ignite.