Saints and Hysterics

Ever since Rosey the Riveter so ably filled the void in American factories during World War II, women in numbers have been challenged attempting to balance motherhood with careers. Compounding this shift has been the economic squeeze on the middle-class, impelling families to have two wage-earners to make ends meet. Then there is the matter of "the glass ceiling," the corporate caste system that limits women's upward job mobility and narrows their career choices.

Photo of Carolyn Valentine (Cate), Gina Wencel (Our Lady) and Warren Sherrill (Oncko)
Carolyn Valentine (Cate), Gina Wencel
(Our Lady) and Warren Sherrill (Oncko)
Photos: Steve Nickerson
and Karen McClean
In Tracy Shaffer Witherspoon's new play, Saints and Hysterics, now receiving its world premiere with the Paragon Theatre Company, these and other women's issues are brought directly and indirectly to bear through the lives of five women: Grace, a married actress about to have her first child; Cate, a director and writer, who remains childless; Heather, a young actress/waitress, just starting out; Oncko, a gay male actor and companion to the aforementioned; and Our Lady, a composite mother figure, part saint, part temptress, part muse.

Cate is directing rehearsals of her new play in which Grace, Heather, and Oncko are cast. After hours, there is much commiserating at the local espresso bar. Bridging this landscape, Our Lady wanders in and out of the theatrical and private lives of the ensemble.

Photo of Carolyn Valentine (Cate), Gina Wencel (Our Lady), and Emily Paton Davies (Cate)
Carolyn Valentine (Cate),
Gina Wencel (Our Lady),
and Emily Paton Davies (Cate)
Photos: Steve Nickerson
and Karen McClean
Witherspoon has certainly created some interesting characters and given them important things to say. When, right off the top, Grace begins describing her relationship with her mother, we are driven to reflect on some of the influences most central to our own lives. Carolyn Valentine, as both Grace and the Woman in the play-within-a-play, is the level-headed, dry wit who, along with her pregnancy, provides the ballast for the storyline. Valentine's understated emotional palette resonates with the analytical nature of her character.

Emily Paton Davies' Cate, a high-strung writer and hard-boiled feminist, ignites the emotional fire of the drama when she confesses her jealousy over Grace's pregnancy and bemoans her own relentless biological clock that is counting down to menopause.

Maggie Mowbray is the feisty Heather/Young Woman, a spicy mix of optimism, sarcasm, and concern. Warren Sherrill, as Oncko/Yin Yang, delivers his one-liners with aplomb, giving bite to a hybrid perspective that is funny, poignant, and sympathetic. Gina Wencel's portrait of Our Lady rings true to a woman who, according to Grace, gave her this advice: "If you learn the rumba, you won't have to cook." Wencel has the dignity and grace of an angel, the desire of a siren, and the heart of a mother.

As a new work, Saints and Hysterics is still in the process of refinement. Witherspoon showed flexibility during the rehearsal process, responding to suggestions from director Barbara Andrews and the cast, and she remains so now, as the reviews and comments come in on the performance. She discussed possible rewrite issues in a recent conversation.

Looking at the script itself, Witherspoon's use of a literal deus ex machina (Our Lady) to expound philosophical perspectives is the primary hurdle to greater dramatic development. This is not to say that Our Lady does not play an important role as both a symbol of universal female principles and as a timely influence on events. But her explanations and sermons, no matter how gently or intelligently delivered, provide unneeded commentary and analysis, arresting the audience's need to make the lessons their own.

The play-within-a-play, too, oversteps its bounds at times, setting a tone for the story that, at the start, misdirects the audience's expectations. While I thought it a clever surprise to learn, a dozen minutes into the play, that we were watching a conceit, I believe that having Cate, the director, interrupt the scene for notes at an earlier point, and then allowing the actors to finish the scene, would open up an avenue for inquiry for both Cate and the audience.

The two main characters, Grace and Cate, provide a rich, conflicted dialectic from which Witherspoon, both cognitively and emotionally, spins a meaningful tale. Refining Our Lady's influence and re-examining the function of the play-within-a-play are two mutually distinct edges of the same sword, with Our Lady providing the carnal and spiritual catalysts, while the play-within-a-play provides a presentational platform for self-conscious social commentary. Interspersed properly, they could stretch the emotional fabric of the canvas and allow the dynamics between Grace and Cate to drive the drama and produce a more effective catharsis.

Paragon Theatre Company's world premiere of Tracy Shaffer Witherspoon's Saints and Hysterics runs through June 26th. 303-300-2210.

Bob Bows


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