Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association; photo by Michael Courier.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise in the misogynistic age of Donald Trump that a nearly 40-year-old feminist play about the ways in which women have been disregarded throughout history still feels stunningly contemporary. One would have hoped that its message about the completely different ways in which men and women move through the world and the different standards to which they are held would have become passé by now. One would have been wrong. Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s condemnation of the Margaret Thatcher standard for women—that they can only be successful if they act like men—sadly still feels relevant and painful today.
“Top Girls” is the name of an employment agency run by Marlene (Linda Gillum), a driven thirty-something Englishwoman who has assimilated the philosophy that femininity itself is a hindrance to one’s career. She has walked away from her small-town upbringing, ignoring her aging parents and her only sister, and eschewing the daughter she had at seventeen who now sees her only as a distant “aunt.” (The fact that the girl is Marlene’s daughter is actually confirmed in the third act, but it is bluntly foreshadowed the first time we ever meet the now sixteen-year-old.) It is only in this way, Marlene feels, that she can live up to her potential.
Marlene sees herself as the latest in a long line of women who have had to shed their femininity if they wished to stand up to the patriarchy and make something of themselves. In Act One, we see her as the host of a fantasy dinner party attended by famous women from history and literature who defied the expectations of men by making names for themselves in male-dominated fields (like the explorer Isabella Bird, played by Annabel Armour), found ways to feel true to themselves despite outwardly playing the roles demanded by their societies (Karissa Murrell Myers’ Lady Nijo), actually hid who they were and managed to rise to prominence pretending to be a man (Rebecca Spence’s Pope Joan), or just went all out and openly battled against the life they had been handed (Aurora Real de Asua’ Dull Gret).
The only invitee, however, who managed to truly succeed at what she wanted in life is Amber Sallis’s Griselda, based on the character from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale,” who despite being treated abusively remains true to herself as well as to the whims of male society and ends up in a good life with her children, directly contrasting the fate of Lady Nijo, whose children were taken away from her. Speaking bluntly, swearing, talking over each other, and drinking heavily, these women brag about or bemoan their accomplishments in a surreal scene that builds in energy to the point where the previously loquacious Lady Nijo cries alone in a corner while Pope Joan loses herself utterly in a lengthy Latin speech and Dull Gret climbs atop the table, sword in hand, to reenact a battle (undoubtedly to the chagrin of waitresses Vahishta Vafadari and Rebecca Hurd).
The second act moves between Marlene in her real life, working in the agency where she has recently been promoted over a man (who, unable to handle that fact, suffers a breakdown), and the home of her sister Joyce (Spence), where Angie, the child she abandoned (de Asua), who is much younger emotionally and mentally than her age—her only friend is a neighbor who is four years her junior (Sallis)—dreams of murdering the “mother” that she has come to hate and running off to live with her “aunt” in London despite already being aware of Marlene’s real relationship to her. Angie’s simplistic hero-worship of her “aunt” may be the result of distance (familiarity breeds contempt), but her belittling of her less successful “mom” (at one point she picks up a brick, imagining bringing it down on Joyce’s head) suggests a detestation for the domesticity of her choices in life—or for the fact that she allowed herself to be used by her sister, a dynamic that Angie echoes (as the dominant one) in her play with her friend. There is a third act as well, taking place six years earlier, that both explains and underscores what we have learned about their lives.
Director Keira Fromm gets everything she can from a talented group of actors. Even Hurd and Vafadari, left to nonverbal responses in the first act, find the spotlight in well-defined roles at the employment agency, where Marlene and her employees demand a kind of masculine resolve from their clients. Since, with the exception of Gillum, each actor—it occurs to me that even the word “actor” is a defeminizing word that, as a sort of equalizing measure, has come to mean performers of all genders—plays multiple roles, Fromm had her work cut out for her in helping them to build all of these different characters—though costumers Raquel Adorno’s and Meeka Postman’s incredible work made her life much easier—as she worked toward a coherent whole that leaves an audience more focused on the things society demands of women. Spence especially shines in the very different roles of Pope Joan, Joyce, and the wife of Howard Kidd, the man whose expected promotion Marlene has taken who expresses the opinion of her husband and all of British society when she calls the driven, demanding Marlene a “ballbreaker.”
Fromm’s task is also enlarged by the fact that Top Girls is three shows in one, fantasy blended with office drama blended with family play, all of which ultimately focus on the ways in which women (especially the modern one represented by Marlene) have to deny themselves to succeed in the world. When even other women (Mrs. Kidd, Joyce) see Marlene’s choices as unwomanly, one can only imagine what the men around her feel. Actually, we don’t need to imagine: all we need to do is see the vastly different expectations for male and female leaders in the business and political worlds of today. A million memes exist that suggest that the “ballbuster” reference still applies, even if it is a word that is largely unused these days. That is the world into which Fromm brings Churchill’s play, very different in many ways even from the one that existed in 2001, when Remy Bumppo last tackled Top Girls, but with women fighting the same old fights. Perhaps some day women will find real equality but, as the question of whether a woman can win a national election once again surges to the forefront politically, we still have a long way to go.
Top Girls is a Remy Bumppo Theatre production now playing at the Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, until Feb 29. The show runs approximately two hours and forty minutes; there are two intermissions. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.