A Woman Without a Name

Eclipse Theatre Company

at the Chicago Cultural Center

By Kelly Kleiman

There’s a venerable tradition in philosophy and literature holding that everything that’s wrong–with everything–is the fault of Mom. Romulus Linney makes his contribution to this genre in A Woman Without a Name, in which he compares his protagonist, a turn-of-the-century housewife, to a crocodile chewing her own breasts. Though the play may be intended merely as a portrait of mother hatred, in Eclipse Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere it serves as an example of it.

Eclipse devotes each season to the work of a single playwright; this 1986 drama is the first of three Linney plays on tap. A prolific playwright much produced in regional theater, Linney may be best known for his Obie-winning Tennessee and for his interest in unusual subjects (Lord Byron’s daughter in Childe Byron, snake handling in Holy Ghosts). He adapted this play from his own 1965 novel, Slowly, by Thy Hand Unfurled.

What did the eponymous woman do to provoke the playwright’s wrath? It seems she considered the possibility that life might hold more for her than the nurturing of children. Some aspects of the journal-keeping woman–let’s call her Medea–appear to be based on the temperance militant Carry Nation, whose journal is quoted in the program. Perhaps Linney eradicated Nation’s name to liberate the character from our image of her as a foolish fanatic who invaded saloons wielding an ax. Or perhaps he wanted to diminish the importance of her public activities so we’d be properly horrified by the private failures he invents and ascribes to her.

The latter seems more likely, as temperance isn’t mentioned until 40 minutes into the play. First we’re treated to a static family portrait. Medea’s spineless husband runs a hardware store and goes fishing (later, in an apparent afterthought, he starts to drink), leaving the woman home with her ailing younger daughter and the memory of her older one, who died of a botched abortion. She also yearns for her absent brother and for an artist son who has tuberculosis, though it’s the other son who keeps trying to move back home. (Later he starts to drink too.) Her ungrammatical journal entries, which suggest that something might be missing from her life, introduce each scene, forming the core (such as it is) of the play.

But the process of learning to spell and pronounce “journal” is pretty thin dramatic gruel. By the end of the first act, we still don’t know who this woman is or why we should care about her. The evolution of a protagonist’s voice worked well in Daniel Keyes’s 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon, in which a developmentally disabled man becomes a genius; it can be the outward and audible sign of an inward and spiritual transformation. Though Linney clearly intends some such transformation to take place–for a transformation must be needed when a woman keeps longing for “a kingdom of my own” and resists her adult son’s desire to move back in–there’s still no sign of it halfway through the play. Instead Linney takes a sharp left turn into melodrama: the second daughter and the favorite son both die, and the other son accuses the woman of murdering them, leading to a bizarre confrontation in the No-Names’ living room in which all manner of family secrets are revealed to demonstrate that “she’s loved us to death.”

Most of these secrets were introduced earlier in the form of dreams and symbols, each repeated several times before they’re said straight-out in this flood of shame and dysfunction, which sounds like the classic spoof of southern literature: “The night the hogs ate Junior, Mama almost died when she found out what Daddy’d done to Sister.” Medea then turns to her faithful African-American retainer, and with barely a pause at making her a substitute daughter goes right to orgasmic lesbianism; a shocked observer cues the audience about the reaction we’re supposed to have. Then Medea gets up, dresses in white, and agrees to her election as leader of the temperance movement. (I know that men are sometimes awed by the power of female orgasm, but this is ridiculous.)

Linney treats any evidence of the woman’s sexuality as repulsive and opposed to her maternal instincts. She repeats no less than three times a dream in which she embraces a blacksmith “naked to the waist…while a child cries somewhere.” It seems women who have sex are terrible mothers, though women who don’t have sex are unlikely to be mothers at all. Linney also has the woman announce, “I was [my children’s] misfortune,” though she neither impregnated her daughter nor gave her son tuberculosis. She must also mourn that “I survive and my family does not,” as though a woman’s place were on the funeral pyre.

There is a good play to be written about Carry Nation. Though the opening-night audience laughed at every mention of the temperance movement, it was not a joke. We can argue whether banning alcohol was the best way to prevent workingmen from drinking up their wages and beating and starving their wives and children, but it’s hard to dispute that alcohol contributed significantly to those problems. Our grammar school view of the temperance movement as ridiculous is largely the product of the same prejudices that branded women who demanded the vote “suffragettes”: both movements were led by women and concerned with women’s well-being. Linney himself obviously finds the temperance fight intriguing, as he chose to adapt his own novel to the stage. But he still hasn’t gotten it right: when he says in an interview that he made the woman more sympathetic here, I can only think, God spare me the book.

This mean-spirited play also suffers from Steven Fedoruk’s direction. There’s a lot of clumping around the tiny Cultural Center space, creating a sense of human clutter when the playwright is trying to make a point of the woman’s isolation. Efforts to represent the older son’s stained-glass art by having the ensemble assume classic stained-glass-window poses seem weird and stagy, as does having the whole cast sit in chairs at the front of the stage, where their choices are to ignore Medea or turn their backs on the audience. Recurring hymns are supposed to comment on the action but just slow it down. Though CeCe Klinger works hard as the woman, none of the performances ring true: they’re overwrought, most of the actors are obviously too young for their parts, and their drawls are insufficient to convey the rural south. Overall the evening is as strained as the joyless religious services it portrays.

For all the religious references, the play conveys no sense of the power of faith. Linney is too busy blaming people for what they’re not to celebrate who they are. Certainly literature is not required to be celebratory, but it is required to be fair, and this is a hatchet job that would do credit to Carry Nation herself.

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