Trinity Square Ensemble

at Live Theatre

Little Victories must have been written by a feminist double agent, a saboteur pretending to champion feminism while actually subverting the cause from within.

The play seems ideologically pure. It revolves around two icons of feminism –Susan B. Anthony and Joan of Arc — who are busy defying male supremacy. Susan is dragging herself through the Wild West, drumming up support for women’s suffrage. Joan is preparing to battle the English at Orleans. Occasionally the playwright, Lavonne Mueller, brings the two together so they can chat and offer support to each other. The premise is designed to flatter the heroines, and the dialogue makes all the right noises about women’s rights, but somehow, the Trinity Square Ensemble’s production projects an image of the female personality that would confirm the prejudices of the most reactionary male chauvinist.

It’s hard to know whether to blame the script or the performances for this impression. Susan, played by Marge Uhlarik, is disarmingly friendly, which is fortunate for her, since she’s traveling in regions dominated by some very tough, hostile cowboys. But she’s also oddly simpleminded about her commitment to women’s rights. She believes she was “chosen” by speech writer Elizabeth Cady Stanton to champion the right of women to vote, and Uhlarik’s portrayal emphasizes this zombielike determination that enabled Susan to endure hardship and failure for the cause.

Joan, as portrayed by Paddy Lynn, is flaky, petulant and profoundly ignorant. She seems dazed and lost in reverie, totally incapable of concentrating on the impending battle. When a lecherous tailor fondles her breasts, she barely notices. When she is frustrated, she throws a tantrum. Her adjutant has to teach her how to ride a horse. The men around her are hostile, but who can blame them? They’re being asked to fight and die in the service of a silly peasant girl who somehow won the confidence of the dauphin. When one of the soldiers revealed his intention to assassinate Joan, I found myself rooting for him.

In all fairness to the playwright, most of the male characters are fairly drawn. They’re not incarnations of evil. In fact, they’re surprisingly responsive to the challenges posed by these women. Even the U.S. marshal who tracks Susan down for casting a ballot seems like a nice guy. He’s merely trying to lasso this renegade woman before she leads others to perdition.

But these sympathetic males are a problem. They’re too sympathetic. They appear levelheaded, flexible, thoughtful, and kind, while the women seem flighty, childish, and consumed by romantic delusions. Again, some of this may be due to the performances. Charles Coyl, for example, tries to be condescending and snide as Joan’s Paris-born adjutant, but he still emerges as a loyal, affectionate supporter. And when he appears as Ben, the sensitive surveyor who almost seduces Susan away from her cause, he is so attractive that she seems crazy for not going with him. Marc A. Nelson, who plays several unsavory characters, still manages to make them delightfully human. Michael Carleton makes the cowpoke named “Double Ugly” seem honest and thoughtful. And Stephen Colbert, who plays the marshal, the judge, and other openly hostile characters, makes them all seem intelligent and dashing, not despicable.

So the women end up looking pretty bad in this purportedly feminist play. While the playwright may have had good intentions, she still gave Joan and Susan some remarkably insipid dialogue. When these two historical figures get together, what do they talk about? Men and marriage.

Joan: Do you think about getting married?

Susan: I watch the horses mate . . . and . . . it looks scary and thrilling. . . .”

Joan: Maybe it’s that way with people. Do you think about marriage?

Susan: I don’t want to sit around and wait for anybody. I want to go away . . . and . . . find the big empty room that’s the whole world.

Why such prosaic conversation between such important historical figures? Why was this play written?

The playwright obviously wants to portray these women as mere mortals afflicted with the human longings and fears that beset us all, and that’s fine. It’s probably even a good idea. But under Karen Erickson’s direction, the actresses play their characters a little too close to the earth, and rob them of all their charisma. Instead of visions, they have ill-conceived brainstorms. Instead of courage, they exhibit the determination of mules. It’s kind of amazing that a play can backfire so violently. When the two women get together and commiserate about the insignificant “little victories” they have achieved, there’s no irony in their assessment. They already look like hopeless losers.