Center Theater

Audiences love the breakaway play. We instinctively side with the unjustly abused–or neglected–character, particularly if they show even a hint of energy and resistance: Cinderella, Nora in A Doll’s House, Lizzie in The Rainmaker, Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday–or Miss Lulu Bett in Zona Gale’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. We cheer on these would-be winners until–always well after we do–they finally wise up to their assorted rotten deals and get the hell out of there.

In a well-made breakaway play, the author heats up the pressure-cooker plot until something’s got to give, or, more accurately, someone’s got to go. Witness Miss Lulu Bett–it sneaks up on you, surprises you when you most fear it won’t, and naturally and vividly poses the puzzler: why is one person’s truth more important than another’s? Best of all, the ending of Miss Lulu Bett turns out braver and truer than a lot of cop-out contemporary works. All of which make Gale’s very satisfying script well worth reviving.

Zona Gale, an early feminist writer and Progressive from Wisconsin, certainly had an Edgar Lee Masters-like feel for how small small towns can be. She sets her breakaway in a claustrophobic midwestern burg (circa 1920) where for 15 years Miss Lulu Bett, a stereotypical spinster and poor relation, has been slaving in her married sister’s home as an unindentured cook and housemaid. Lulu’s overseers–her brittle, useless sister Ina and Ina’s smug, sarcastic, elaborately selfish husband, Dwight Deacon, a dentist and part-time justice of the peace–treat Lulu with an unctuous condescension that’s maddening to behold. And of course they never behold it; we’re talking conditioned cruelty here.

Her pride swallowed to the point of digestion, Lulu can’t imagine how things could be different (which forces the audience to do it for her). Then Dwight’s vagabond brother Ninian arrives. Ninian more than takes pity on Lulu, he imagines he loves her; and in the first kindness anyone has shown Lulu, he invites her to a movie. Ninian even teases Lulu into reciting the marriage ceremony with him. Since they’re in the presence of a justice of the peace and a witness (Lulu’s bashful admirer, the gawky piano store owner Mr. Cornish), by the law of the time they are married. Better yet, they don’t mind.

Just when we think Lulu’s made her great escape, she returns from her Georgia honeymoon knowing at last what Ninian lacked the courage to tell her–he was already married. And yet Lulu harbors no hate; she’s sure Ninian did love her, an estranged wife notwithstanding. The disbelieving Dwight Deacon viciously tells Lulu that Ninian simply tired of her and concocted a kiss-off lie. But Lulu won’t buy any more humiliation.

With a newborn dignity she won’t let go of, Lulu wants the town to know the real reason she returned so soon after her “marriage.” Bigamy’s a story that would blacken the Deacon family’s reputation, which is why the respectable Dwight and Ina keenly want Lulu to say she was dumped–even after the justice of the peace discovers Ninian had told her the truth. If Lulu wants a roof over her head, she’d better shut up and keep cooking. If she wants her freedom–well, we wonder, what can she do?

Without our taking the plot to its finish, it’s important to add that even near its very end, Gale’s play doesn’t stop gathering interest. All along we’ve been led to believe the only way out for impoverished Lulu was to accept the ardor of Mr. Cornish, her dogged and well-heeled suitor. But here, too, Gale springs a surprise (one that in 1921 was years ahead of its time). Gale’s gutsy resolution testifies to the kind of forthright honesty found in Morning’s at Seven, another unjustly neglected breakaway play that at last came into its deserts. Miss Lulu Bett displays the same decency and grit.

Based on an adaptation by the late actor-writer Peter Burnell (remembered as Claudius in the Wisdom Bridge Hamlet), Dan LaMorte’s Center Theater production gives Miss Lulu Bett a fair and forthright revival. A staging accurate enough to let us fill in its occasional blanks, it’s most true to the cumulative and cascading chaos of the Deacons’ middle-class quagmire (here deceptively framed in John Murbach’s nicely detailed, period-perfect porch and parlor set).

One of those missing blanks, occasionally, is Carole Gutierrez as Lulu Bett. In Lulu’s opening scene (where the sister is ordered about like Cinderella on a bad day), Gutierrez comes off surly and cantankerous; she behaves as if the abuse she’s taking isn’t something she’s used to. (Admittedly, Kelly Thompson and Marc Vann as Ida and Dwight Deacon do come down like sledgehammers on poor Lulu; you’d think their cruelty would be unthinking by now.) It’s not Lulu’s anger we should see; it’s her hunger for love and self-respect. What we don’t glimpse is the pathos of a woman who’s come to accept this meanness because she thinks she has no choice.

This missing emotional link prevents us from savoring Lulu’s unexpected flowering before the charming Ninian. Finally, when Lulu returns from her aborted honeymoon, the still glum Gutierrez doesn’t really radiate the big change: Lulu knows love and that secret makes her breakaway possible, and now we really need to see inside her. Ironically, Gutierrez gives us enough of Lulu to make these missed opportunities really matter.

Dwight Deacon’s bullying laughter and whining selfishness and Ina Deacon’s glacial indifference to her sister’s happiness are pretty sinister stuff. Marc Vann and Kelly Thompson deliver the wicked goods–but inconsistently. In the first-act finale, they underplay their shock at losing Lulu to Ninian. It’s a mistake because at the end of the play Gale wants us to believe the Deacons are desperate to hold on to their cheap labor. So why weren’t they earlier?

There are no great problems with the other work. In just one scene, the actor playing Ninian must convince us of his interest in Lulu; James Leaming does, no small feat. Always delightful as a curmudgeon, Lucina Paquet brings her crusty, devastating deadpan to Mama Bett, the cynical old sourpuss who secretly steers Lulu to freedom.

As the Deacons’ spoiled daughter Di–in her own way just as trapped as her aunt Lulu and not nearly as brave–Karyn Cooks has the hauteur but too little of the vulnerability. As Di’s bewildered teenage suitor, Michael Bransfield proves a tree or two more wooden than required. John Garvey, playing gawky, well-meaning, lonely Mr. Cornish, is at first too awkward, but his understated proposal in the second act is a lode of none too buried feelings. Finally, Erin Creighton plays Lulu’s bratty little niece Monona (“the progeny,” as the justice pompously calls her) with delightful spunkiness and verve. This is one child actor who’s always in character.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.