Women on Fire

By Philip Pearce

THE ONLY THING BETTER than discovering a new piece of good dramatic writing is seeing it brought to life by good actors.

A case in point is a production of a new play I had never before heard of called Women on Fire by Irene O’Garden. Between now and March 14th, it’s being streamed online by Jewel Theatre Company through an outfit called ShowTix4U.   

It takes the form of a dozen monologues from women who have something they’re burning to tell the world when the world seems to have forgotten how to listen. The performers who make it all happen are Julie James, Diana Torres Koss and Hannah Mary Keller. They become figures fitted onto your screen in little Zoom boxes which light up and jump forward when it’s time for them to talk.      

For dark comedy it would be hard to beat Julie James’s portrait of a Manhattan auntie persuading her lovelorn niece that the best way to heal a broken heart is shopping. Svelt and chatty behind her daiquiri, the lady—I think her name is Rita—explains how to turn a simple trip to the mall into a spectator sport demanding the finesse and skill of polo or ice hockey. For starters, it’s got to be the Mall, enclosed and weather-proof, as compared with open air Fifth Avenue. And you don’t begin with your favorite store; you gradually work up to it. “I always start with Penney’s to remind myself how far I’ve come.”  

In its darker moments, Women on Fire homes in on bruised relationships between mothers and daughters. Diana Torres Koss would charm the birds off a tree as a boringly conventional but totally lovable suburban mom given to embroidery, baking and a wish that things could be “as sweet and nice as butter and sugar” with an insufferable daughter and son-in-law who sneer at her longing to become a grandma. Taking the matter up with God, with whom she has a warm and jokey rapport, she thinks again when He asks her, “Do you really want them raising your grandkids?”

In another segment, Torres Koss offers a darker take on the same conflict as a Southern lady struggling with booze and inaction when she recognizes that she is the model for a loathsome character in the new best-seller by her novelist daughter.

It’s also a play about epiphanies—moments when a happening or an encounter with an object gives a woman a fresh look at who she is, and how she can become who she ought to be.     

Dressed in jeans, boots and a hard hat and wielding a sledge hammer, Hannah Mary Keller is compelling as a black girl mixing concrete on a building site. It’s a job that her boyfriend had quit as “slave labor” just when she had given birth to twins. She has responded by storming down to the union office and demanding to replace him.  

Fuming, she imagines the heavy tools of her new trade smashing into the skull, jammed into the guts of that feckless man back home collecting unemployment payments. But in responding to family doubts and questions about her new butch personality and pursuit, she comes to understand that she works not with weapons of destruction but with tools of growth and change. “Someone’s got to build. Might as well be me.”

It’s a moment of learning and growth not unlike a surprise discovery Torres Koss makes in a telling picture of a political activist nurturing a garden full of organic produce grown as agents of protest against corporate food giants with their “pink, Styrofoam baseballs” they call tomatoes.  Then one evening she looks up at a pink moon and decides that having for years seen her garden as “working for justice, I think of it now as working for beauty.”

For all its ironies and social satire, Women on Fire is a warmhearted work. It rejects quick and easy laughs and cheap scorn. It delights in the quirks and oddities women use in their battles with injustice.

For me, the emotional high point was Julie James as a decent and rational big city working girl who learns, against all odds and all birth control protections, that she is pregnant. With her shocked but supportive live-in partner, she goes patiently through the dreary step by step of an abortion. But along the way she develops a “flickering candle flame” of respect and tenderness for the unborn being she is planning to destroy. Sure of her pregnancy, she quits smoking because “while it was in me, I wanted it to have the best of care.” O’Garden takes a familiar piece of human tragedy and, with Julie James, turns it into poetry.  

There’s much more. A loony unpublishable writer spray paints the books of Melville and Sinclair Lewis. A Catholic is stunned out of religion by a trip to Croatia. A smiling granny preaches the raw physicality of Pentecostal worship. And all well worth watching and hearing.

My one criticism is aimed at the poor quality of some of the audio. Hannah Mary Keller has an intense-looking segment as a Catholic girl making her confession in church. Two viewings suggested she is turning the Sacrament into a shouted debate with the priest on duty, but the sound was so scratchy that’s only a guess. Sad to lose any part of this wise and appealing piece of theater.    

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Writ in Water

By Philip Pearce

WRIT IN WATER is the latest of Howard Burnham’s one-man acting portraits of formative English-speaking people.

Having suffered through past stage monologues from characters who bared their souls unbidden and at large, I’m always pleased that Howard, like classic monologists Ruth Draper and Joyce Grenfell, creates a speaker who is involved in an actual situation and talks with the other character.

In the case of Saturday’s online MCTA performance, the speaker is Leigh Hunt, arbiter of artistic taste and talent in mid-19th-century England. The topic of conversation is John Keats. As Keats’ mature mentor, guide and friend, Hunt is an obvious expert on the joys and sorrows, emotional ups and downs of the poet. And the surprise visitor he talks to thirty years after Keats’ death turns out to be Charles Dickens.

Why Dickens? Well, Bleak House features a posturing and manipulative arbiter of taste and talent named Harold Skimpole—everyone who was anybody knew the novelist had modeled on Leigh Hunt. In Howard Burnham’s prologue, Hunt generously accepts the Skimpole character as just a “naughty” piece of exaggerated Dickensian satire and spends the rest of the action responding to his visitor’s request to hear about the life of the late lamented John Keats.

The performance has a lot of the dramatic bite that just wouldn’t fit into the history behind Howard’s one-man show about Wordsworth earlier this month. Keats is a whirlpool of conflicting drives, desire, doubts and passions. Trained as a medic he ultimately rejects the financial security of a career as a licensed apothecary and surgeon at Guy’s Hospital favoring instead the uncertainties of writing verse. But he continues to wrestle inwardly with a nagging fear that he will never amount to anything important in the British literary world.

Burnham’s portrait of the artist as a young man is peopled with characters who affirm or deny his doubts about his abilities. These only loom larger when critics and the reading public reject his early published works.

Burnham is at his comic best in a brief, cutting send-up of the waspish critical windbag John Gibson Lockhart, who dismisses Keats as just another of the “Cockney poets,” and advises him to stop pushing his pen and go back to pushing pills and potions for Guy’s Hospital. Burnham exploits the full irony of a pontificating Scotsman critic nobody today has ever heard of taking potshots at a genius still honored as one of the greatest voices of Romantic literature.

Keats loved and was loved by two women. The first was Isabella Jones, though Burnham’s Hunt comments that she and Keats seemed less to have developed a serious attachment than to have “circled around each other” talking about it. The true love of his short life is Fanny Brawne, who became an inspiration for his work and a key member of his creative circle of friends.

Keats was a fitting headliner in an age when, as Burnham remarked in last Saturday’s Q & A, “it was fashionable to die young if you were a romantic poet.” He was born into a family hunted down not by a virus but by the consumption that carried off so many nineteenth century writers not to mention the characters they wrote about. Not surprising, then, that the play makes it clear Keats went through life “half in love with easeful death.” When he began to spit up blood, London medics suggested a move to the warmer climes of Italy. But, settled near the Spanish steps in Rome, his decline was probably hastened not held off by a doctor who put him on a starvation diet and regular bleedings. The end came almost exactly 200 years ago in February of 1821. The play’s title comes from the continuing self-doubt reflected in the words Keats ordered to have inscribed on his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

It’s an erudite and moving piece of research and acting.

The next figure in Burnham’s catalogue of literary notables is George Bernard Shaw to ‘air’ March 6.