Exposing Mars and Venus 

Night and Day upends gender stereotypes while Steel Magnolias reinforces them.

It's taken for granted in our culture that women are more inherently loving, compassionate, and emotionally capable than men. Much is made of this "truth," and esteemed theorists such as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus author John Gray pontificate all the way to the bank. It takes brave voices to suggest that the capacity to feel deeply and sweetly is not coded in our genes, that our ability to connect to other people is as much a product of how we're raised as anything else, that maybe, just maybe, we've been sold a bill of goods. Some even suggest that the belief that women and men are programmed to behave in certain ways is a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads us to limit ourselves, court disappointment, and close ourselves to the potential for real, egalitarian connection. As feminist theorist bell hooks notes in her Communion: The Female Search for Love: "Our cultural idealization of women as caregivers is so powerful. It's really one of the few positive traits assigned women by patriarchy. Therefore, it's not surprising that women are reluctant and at times downright unwilling to interrogate notions that we are inherently more loving. If this is the only positive characteristic females are allowed to claim, the one trait that lets us be seen as morally superior to men, most women will continue to be deeply invested in clinging to the perception that we are loving even when we know we are not."

Nearly a century before Gray or hooks, Virginia Woolf boldly applied herself to the same question. In her second novel Night and Day, Woolf created six characters who wrestle articulately with love, expression, commitment, and appearances as they try to define themselves in a rapidly changing time. Although set in 1910, Night and Day feels incredibly familiar because its concerns are timeless. Besides the issue of gender-stratified behavior, Woolf suggests that we are not who we think we are. We do not know our own hearts; we are mysteriously driven to love people who don't love us, and too often doomed to heartbreak as a result.

In his ongoing quest to stimulate discussion, Transparent Theater's artistic director Tom Clyde has adapted Night and Day for the stage, in a form that is often so smooth it's hard to believe the story wasn't originally intended for the theater. In this it is more successful than Transparent's lovely but ponderous Eternity Is in Love with the Productions of Time, which knit together the work of a wide range of poets in a story of hope amidst political repression.

Catherine (Lucy Owen) longs for independence. Secretly she scratches out equations late at night, catching hell during the day from the people around her because she's cool and unemotional. Never mind that she's honest with everyone about what sort of person she is or perceives herself to be; society and culture demand that a woman behave in a certain way, and she is taken to be a "cruel practical creature" because she refuses to live according to such a narrow definition. Meanwhile Mary (Chloë Bronzan), who believes that "only affection is the true reality," works outside the home and organizes for women's suffrage while pining for a man she can't have. Some of the poignancy of this play lies in the fact that while these two women -- each longing for the other's life -- could have a powerful friendship, it may be impossible for them to overcome both socially imposed class barriers and a mutual mistrust based on the presence of a third party, the writer Ralph Denham (Jason Frazier).

Ralph is besotted with Catherine (one difference between those days and today: Apparently standing outside a woman's house every night used to get you something other than a restraining order), but she has agreed to marry the mercurial William (Noah James Butler). William understands nothing of Catherine's true nature. "What do women want with learning anyway?" he asks. By his lights, marriage improves a woman by developing qualities such as self-sacrifice, maternal feeling, and so on. William not only doesn't know his own heart, he doesn't understand Catherine's either. When he says, "I could write sonnets to your eyebrows," we see how little interest she has in something so silly. And so these four, along with Catherine's cousins Cassandra and Henry, stumble about trying to connect, full of hope that it is possible to build new structures for love.

While the acting is strong, the technical realization is uneven. Anne Goldschmidt's beautifully painted set feels like a subway tube with its curved sides and inset seats, giving the impression that the characters are rushing along together, unable to escape. The actors move around a handful of stretchy ropes that indicate walls, doorways, passages; the stage business with the ropes is not always clear. The music's lovely, but gets irritating through repetition, since the scenes are short and the music is used to ease the numerous transitions (sometimes loudly, forcing the actors to either yell or sacrifice being heard). Colin Kaminski's lights are subtle and effective, particularly in a scene set in Kew Gardens that perfectly captures a pattern of dappled late-afternoon sunlight, and Coley Lally's streamlined costumes evoke the period without fussiness.

Why do we love who we love when they are wrong for us or love us not? What is our emotional obligation to other people, ourselves, and our own dreams? Woolf doesn't have either answer, but she raises the question deftly, in the process offering new models for female lives richer and more complex than the reductionist thinking that leads to the idea that men and women arrived on Earth from different parts of the solar system.

Meanwhile, the ideal of selfless, loving womanhood is taken to its logical extreme in Steel Magnolias, which answers the questions that it raises with faith, sisterhood, and some rather obvious symbolism featuring a woman dying as another prepares to give birth. Interestingly enough, this sweet, firmly '80s show was written by a man. Robert Harling, whose greatest public success until he wrote Magnolias was acting in a Jell-O commercial, was inspired by his childhood in small-town Louisiana and the memory of his sister Susan to write an extended paean to the grace and grit of Southern womanhood. These tough flowers, denizens of a beauty parlor built in a converted carport, ooze feelings, support each other when the going gets hard, and realize that they'll always be able to count on each other more than on the men in their lives. Unlike Night and Day, which is wry and incisive, Magnolias is often laugh-out-loud funny. Also unlike Night and Day, there is little or no questioning of gender roles; the town of Chinquapin Parish is apparently a bastion of the widely held beliefs about what women are really like when the chips are down.

If you didn't see the three-hankie Sally Field/Julia Roberts film outing based on this play, you may still know that it's the kind of story that when made into a movie is rather derogatorily labeled a chick flick. Laughter, tears, sentimentality, a tidy upbeat ending in the face of sadness, no car chases. Like Night and Day, Steel Magnolias also features six characters. But they're all women, and although other than young Annelle they're a bunch of smartasses with clever lines, they're not exactly challenging the dominant paradigm on anything, whether it's gender roles, religion, or the importance of female self-sacrifice.

In lesser hands, this could be a cloying disaster. Fortunately the Willows production boasts several strong performers, including Phoebe Moyer as an elegant, football-mad widow, Chetana Karel as the obnoxious, eccentric Ouiser Boudreaux, and Nancy Madden as levelheaded M'Lynn, whose husband has been freaking out the neighbors by repeatedly firing a handgun into the trees to scare off birds that might ruin daughter Shelby's wedding. The cast is rounded out by Marie Shell as Truvy, Lily Oglesby as Shelby, and the unconvincing Leslie Waggoner as Truvy's new assistant Annelle. Although Dianna Shuster's direction is able -- there's an especially well-blocked moment when Shelby and M'Lynn are both having their hair worked on, and the actors face the audience -- there are things about this narrative that take a while to unfold, even if the message is clear from the beginning: Contrary to appearances, all women are sisters, all women recognize each other as sisters, and when things go awry only women's loving kindness will save the day. Simple, direct, and probably dead wrong in more cases than we care to admit, but charming enough in this production.


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