Playwright Hazel Ellis is not a name that comes readily to mind. Her play, currently running at City Center under the auspices of the Mint Theater Company, was first produced in her native Ireland by Michael MacLiammoir at the Gate, which he and Hilton Edwards had established in 1928. Ms. Ellis was an actress, trained at the Abbey Theatre, whose first play, Portrait In Marble, introduced her as a writer in 1936. It was a success and she followed it two years later with Women Without Men. Again the press and the public favored her and it was expected she would continue, for she was only 30. But she virtually disappeared from the Dublin stage and was not heard from again.
Jonathan Bank, whose Mint Theater Company has revived over forty other precious relics, is responsible for unearthing this fine play. Many have titles that ring distant bells; titles like The Fatal Weakness, Susan and God, No Time For Comedy, Miss Lulu Bett, all of which had great success in their original Broadway outings. Others, like Soldier’s Wife by Rose Franken, The Fifth Column by Ernest Hemingway, The Daughter In Law by D.H.Lawrence are lesser known titles by famous writers. Mr. Bank directs many of them, but even when he doesn’t, one can count on a cast of marvelous actors who have somehow managed to hide their lights under a bushel or two. He seems to have access to a hidden treasure chest of talent, most of whom find their way to the stages occupied by the Mint.
A fine example is the current Women Without Men. It’s difficult to understand how this fine ensemble piece managed to be ignored by American managements until now. It followed Christa Winsloe’s 1930 German play Maedchen in Uniform and Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour in a popular 1930s cycle of girls’ school dramas. “Another step forward in Irish Drama” is what the Evening Herald wrote about it.”Characters drawn with remarkable skill and interpreted by really intelligent acting” crowed The Irish Independent. Now, as we spend a couple of hours in the Teacher’s Lounge as impeccably designed by Vicki R. Davis, under Jenn Thompson’s beautifully orchestrated direction, we can discover for ourselves what all the shouting was about.
For here is a play written in the 1930s that resonates today even though its circumstances are tightly wrapped in the mores of its time. Set at the fictional Malyn Park Private School it gave Ms. Ellis a platform to give vent to her distinctive voice as a chronicler of Dublin women. Irish society at the time was extremely conservative, aided by the 1937 Constitution of Ireland which prescribed for woman a “life within the home.” The teachers that comprise this company face pressures from the outside world, which mocks them as renegades, and the cloistered life they lead at school, which consumes them, leads to mischief, the sort that breathes life into this absorbing play.
Emily Walton plays “Jean Wade,” the idealistic young woman who begins the play as the new teacher introduced to the others. Their response to her varies according to their past histories, and watching these relationships develop or diminish is fascinating, as its young playwright spoon feeds us through revealing dialog these complex teachers ranging from the very sensitive oldest, Miss Witherspoon, to the self-absorbed Miss Connor, the self-appointed prima donna.
Each of these women is revealed to us slowly, and all eight actresses offer rounded and interesting performances in fleshing them out. The ultimate dance of death between Connor and Wade resolves itself in a surprising manner, and I found Hazel Ellis right up there with Lillian Hellman in the scope of her talent as a playwright.
And please note that this production gives new meaning to the phrase “equal opportunity.” It leaves the fellows in all departments waiting in the wings.
The director, the cast: Mary Bacon, Joyce Cohen, Shannon Harrington, Kate Middleton, Aedin Moloney, Alexa Shae Niziak, Kellie Overbey, Dee Pelletier, Beatrice Tulchin, Emily Walton, and Amelia White, which includes three talented youngsters as students, the designers of sets (Vicki R. Davis), lighting (Traci Klainer Polimeni), costumes (Martha Hally), original music and sound (Jane Shaw), the stage manager (Kathy Snyder), and the dialect coach (Amy Stoller)- are all women.
Not since Claire Boothe Luce’s The Women have there been such juicy roles for women of all shapes, sizes, and ages, so three cheers for Mint Theater Company! I highly recommend this Mint Theater production to all who relish the thought of discovering a new playwright who happens to have stopped writing 78 years ago.
Women Without Men is playing though March 26, 2o16 at The Mint Theater Company – performing at City Center Stage II – 131 West 55th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues) in New York City. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, call City Tix at (212) 581-1212, or purchase them online