Benjamin Sprunger and Dana Black
Benjamin Sprunger and Dana Black Credit: Chris Ocken

“Some families express their love through shouting, some through hugs and kisses,” writes Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins in the introduction to his promising new work, Miss Marx: Or the Involuntary Side Effects of Living. “This family loves through wit.”

“This family” is the tattered remains of Karl Marx’s brood. In the final days of his life, exiled in London, he withers unseen in an upstairs bedroom. His only blood relative left in the home is his youngest daughter, Eleanor, the tireless organizer, orator, essayist, and agitator at the center of Dawkins’s play. Orbiting her are Karl’s collaborator and benefactor, Fredrick Engels; his indefatigable housekeeper, Nim; and Nim’s fey adult son, Freddy, all of whom pull Eleanor in opposing directions. But the greatest and most destructive pull comes from Edward Aveling, a charming if self-involved cipher who sucks Eleanor in with the promise of making the “mannish” socialist feel like a woman at last.

“The characters are quick thinkers, big lovers, over-bookers and fast movers,” Dawkins adds. “The furious circles these characters spin around each other serve to hold them up like centrifugal force.” His final directive to those mounting his play is a simple “Have fun!” Clearly he envisions Miss Marx as some combination of playground game, Wildean drawing-room comedy, and crystal meth binge.

Rather than heed Dawkins’s suggestion, Megan Shuchman, who directs this Strawdog Theatre Company world premiere, takes a methodical, decidedly unfun approach, slowing things to mulling speed and inserting lots of ruminative musical interludes between scenes (scenes Dawkins insists should shift “fluidly and rapidly”). Shuchman does allow a few fleet, light-hearted moments—most memorably when Eleanor (Dana Black) laces Aveling (John Ferrick) up in her corset to let him experience firsthand a woman’s daily sufferings. But for the most part she stages things with such seriousness it seems she’s mistaken Miss Marx for a History Channel documentary.

Yet Dawkins’s script shows little interest in historical accuracy. The play opens in 1883, the year Marx died, as Eleanor performs in a fully staged production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In fact, the play didn’t open in London until 1889, and Eleanor wasn’t in it (though she did once take part in a private reading of the play that included Aveling and George Bernard Shaw). She returns home, where Engels lives (he didn’t), where Nim raised Freddy (he was raised by another family entirely), and where the effete poof Freddy (he wasn’t) is Eleanor’s bosom companion (whatever her relationship with the real Freddy, she called “the effeminate man” a “diseased form” in her 1886 essay “The Woman Question”). When she meets Aveling, he seems like the most idle man in London, not a biologist and noted early proponent of evolutionary theory.

Throughout, Dawkins’s historicity is fluid and impressionistic. All that matters is the general shape of things, so that he can more convincingly depict the forces that threaten to overwhelm Eleanor. She’s pushed by Engels (Matt Holzfeind) to continue her father’s work, pulled by Freddy (Benjamin Sprunger) into his faux upper-class dalliances, and coaxed by the already married Aveling to become his common-law wife. Dawkins drops Eleanor into the middle of a contrived theatrical hurricane to see what damage—mischievous or lethal—he can inflict.

And by sending Eleanor on her doomed flight, he can probe his real interest: the absurd and heartbreaking strictures of Victorian class and gender norms, which sadly aren’t terribly different from our own. In one of the play’s deftest moments, Eleanor’s despondent sister Laura laments, “I’m not dying, I’m a woman. The symptoms are similar.” It’s all done in a torrent of wit and wordplay that requires nimble, hairpin performances—just what you won’t get here.

A more rapid pace might help conceal some of the script’s holes. For most of the first act there’s almost nothing at stake for any of the characters. Eleanor’s initial interest in Aveling seems like pure dramatic convenience, and Dawkins does little to bring out the nature of his extraordinary hold over her—a particularly problematic omission when her devotion to him is the play’s main engine. A fast pace might also help an audience overlook that Dawkins’s primary depiction of Eleanor—despite her extraordinary literary, oratorical, and political skills, she’s incomplete without a man’s love—reinforces the sort of retrograde gender stereotypes his play wants to skewer.

But if Dawkins’s script is a maelstrom, this production is a gentle breeze. Shuchman’s misreading of the play turns its gleefully inaccurate historical narrative into a weakness. The intentionally porous story doesn’t hold up under the sort of scrutiny her production demands of it. And this family doesn’t love through wit—its members are never witty; at best they’re jokey, and at worst they’re talky. Dawkins’s buoyant wordplay is so flattened it can’t keep this overworked docudrama afloat, and it sinks long before the final blackout.