What’s a suburban American housewife living in 1960 with a philandering
husband, two needy kids, a tortured past, and a millennia-old curse to do?
Well, it depends which housewife you ask in Jami Brandli’s new,
too-cute-by-exactly-half play, currently staged by Promethean Theatre
Maddy (Alice Wu), maniacal about maintaining traditional gender roles in
her stereotypically pre-women’s-lib enclave, takes the theatrically
precious route, adhering to the strictures of Emily Post’s Etiquette with the fervor of a religious convert. Her devotion to
serving “a proper tea” blocks out the sources of her sublimated but readily
apparent anguish: she betrayed her family, her heritage (she’s half
Hawaiian), and her humanity to become the ideal white wife. Once Brandli
sets her in motion, she becomes to contemporary audiences a cartoonish
exemplar of Wrong Choices. Thus she’s rarely interesting or surprising,
even when her life implodes and it turns out she’s Medea.
Clementine (Jamie Bragg), on the other hand, takes the theatrically
demanding route. Having suffered a grievous loss at the hands of her
loutish husband, Arthur—and blamed for it by judgmental female
neighbors—she sees through the hypocrisy of gendered propriety but lacks
the courage or means to strike out on her own. Her only hope of finding her
true self, she believes, is to run off with the family doctor, yet she’ll
need legal cause for divorce. Enter Cassandra (Kaci Antkiewicz), Arthur’s
new typist and seemingly the town’s only African-American, whom Clementine
hopes to bribe into a compromising position with her husband. Cassandra may
end up lynched, but Clementine imagines she’ll be free.
It all blows up spectacularly in Clementine’s face, but her route to
disaster is full of all the moral ambivalence and pressing stakes absent
from Maddy’s journey. In essence, Brandli puts Clementine, a modern-day
Clytemnestra, in a genuine predicament while placing Maddy in a mere setup.
Brandli tries to imbue everything else in the play with mythic resonance.
Cassandra is, well, Cassandra, cursed by Apollo (a vainglorious, toga-clad
prick) to speak true prophecies no one believes. And neighborhood teen
Antonia (Kellen Robinson), whom Maddy tries to indoctrinate in all things
Emily Post, is just barely Antigone, living with her unyielding
business-tycoon uncle, Creon. Her great moral test comes not from burying a
traitorous brother but from taking part in the civil rights movement. But
for all the classical allusions throughout the play, about the only use
Brandli makes of them, Clementine’s dilemma notwithstanding, is a rather
simplistic admonition that women should make their own decisions.
Director Anna Bahow keeps her strong cast charging forward for more than
two hours, finding impressive nuance along the way. If this had been
entirely Clementine’s play, it might have paid off. v