Jessica Swale’s 1896-set drama should come with a trigger warning. I mean, perhaps I’m projecting, but when an esteemed scholar (“he dines with Darwin, for crissakes!”) starts lecturing on why women are physiologically unfit for education (the brain leaches blood from the reproductive organs) and pronounces educated women a threat to the very foundation of all humanity, I high-key wanted to vault over the front row and punch him in his fucking foundation, even though he was in 19th-century Cambridge University, bedrock of Western education and hardly an outlier in the sciences. It took 800 years for Cambridge to admit women, almost 850 to award them diplomas. Swale’s play is concerned with a movement to let women graduate from Cambridge’s sister school for girls, Girton College. It’s a tough sell for the women at the hub of director Spenser Davis’s incendiary never-mind-reading-this-get-a-ticket-now-caliber Promethean production.
Science is not on women’s side. Also, Cambridge’s female students (standout performances by Julia Rowley, Imani Lyvette, Elise Marie Davis, and Heather Kae Smith) and faculty (Cameron Feagin, Jamie Bragg, also marvelous) don’t get a vote in whether women deserve diplomas for doing (at least) the same work as male students. (Cambridge) womens’ worth will be decided by (Cambridge) men. Who may also be those guys wielding torches and/or burning effigies of women in the streets.
“But just you wait, ‘enri ‘iggins!,” to reference another patriarchal nightmare. It gets even more likely to trigger when the most brilliant young student (Lyvette in a heartbreaking performance) is forced to become a sacrificial lamb for what turns out to be a lost cause. Costumer Rachel Sypniewski’s elaborate frocks are period perfect, and Davis’s seamless cast convincingly depicts elite British academia, but there’s something all too familiar about what’s happening to the marvelous ensemble wearing them. v