Bailiwick Repertory

In the lighthearted satire He’s Having Her Baby, produced earlier this year at Circle Theatre, Joan Lipkin (with coauthor Tom Clear) fashioned an alternative universe exactly like ours but with the traditional gender roles reversed. Women dominate the power elite; men are left with all the nothing, dead-end positions (secretary, receptionist, cheerleader), and they get pregnant to boot. In Small Domestic Acts, currently running as part of Bailiwick Repertory’s Women’s Work series, Lipkin re-creates a fairly realistic world that will seem alternative only to those who see things with “don’t ask, don’t tell” blinders on.

This bittersweet comedy concerns two lower-middle-class couples–one straight, the other lesbian–whose lives are turned inside out when their friendships turn more serious. Lipkin minimizes the melodramatic potential of her story by giving as much weight to the friendship between machinist Frank and his lesbian work buddy Frankie as she does to the unfolding love affair between Straight Sheila and Lesbian Sheila (as Lipkin names them in the program).

In fact, by the end of the play I found myself caring much more about Frank and Frankie, not just because they’re the jilted lovers, but because the Sheila-Sheila affair clearly screwed up what had been a wonderful friendship between the isolated and lonely Frank and Frankie.

I don’t mean to imply that Lipkin’s play isn’t a melodrama, only that it’s a well-written, well-acted, well-directed melodrama, in the tradition of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows or Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle. But Lipkin owes much more to Luigi Pirandello than to Sirk or Ephron. In true Pirandellian fashion, all her characters are completely aware of being onstage, and all her scenes are acted out onstage with a minimum of props and light cues, as if the four characters were members of a group-therapy session, asked to walk through the main scenes of their still-raw love traumas as part of some exercise.

As in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, a constant breaking of the theatrical illusion–characters routinely interrupt scenes, break the fourth wall, comment on the action–paradoxically bonds the characters all the more tightly to the audience. By the time Lipkin gets to the heart of her story, we feel we know her characters and truly care about them.

Which leads me to the thing I appreciate most about Lipkin’s work. As an overtly political playwright, founder of Saint Louis’s wittily named radical theater, That Uppity Theatre Company, she never lets her message stifle her work. He’s Having Her Baby was a far richer satire because she created a comedy that was much more than a feminist critique of a patriarchal society. Likewise, Small Domestic Acts is moving and meaningful because she has created a well-rounded dramatic work in which all the characters–straight and lesbian–are treated as full human beings. In the hands of a less subtle playwright intent on showing that all heterosexual relationships are inherently patriarchal, Frank could easily have been a mere whipping boy. In the hands of a post-Oleanna David Mamet, Frank could have been turned into a Christ figure, crucified on the cross of political correctness. Lipkin avoids both extremes, and her stage world is all the better for it.

It helps that director L.M. Attea has such a light, graceful touch. In her able hands, Lipkin’s story seems to unfold spontaneously onstage. And it helps that the four actors Attea gathered for this production are so strong. Meg Arader does a splendid job portraying Frankie’s contradictory personality: her emotional reticence, her tough butch exterior, her well-hidden vulnerability. Joe Forbrich turns in a multilayered performance every bit as good as his best work at Shattered Globe Theatre. And Joan Quinlan as the two-timing Lesbian Sheila once again shines in a role that requires her to be gentle, soft-spoken, and hard as nails underneath.

My only complaint is that Deborah Leydig’s Straight Sheila is too heartless in some of the later scenes. Of course, after the jilted Frank and Frankie win the audience’s sympathy you’d have to be Saint Francis of Assisi not to seem heartless. Still, Leydig’s Sheila is so much less likable than any other character that it unbalances Lipkin’s otherwise even-keeled work.

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