The Gut Girls

Mary-Arrchie Theatre

By Carol Burbank

The idea that Americans can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is so strong that we have some trouble imagining class identity, much less acknowledging the oppressive stereotypes that obscure working-class culture. As a result good contemporary plays about working-class people are rare.

Sure, we have the much-loved guttural denizens of largely imaginary rural and urban hells, the eccentric individuals created by Sam Shepard and David Mamet. Frank Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath was one of the more admirable mainstream experiments in interpreting working-class literature. August Wilson has extended earlier genres with his poetic histories of African-Americans, but he critiques racism, not classism. The best American playwright in this vein, Naomi Wallace, has found a loyal audience in England, not the States. Americans are reluctant to look honestly at the reality of the working class; we want to imagine that anyone can be president.

Cultural resistance to the idea that social class is fixed results in plays that make heroes out of people who abandon their communities. Remarkable individuals rise up from dead-end jobs while the poorly educated hordes live in factory-owned row houses. We mourn victims who sink tragically into death, unable to compromise in the face of mediocrity. These morality tales focused on the individual reassure and inspire privileged audiences by teaching us to value the miraculous achievement of the one and devalue the strengths of collective identity.

But not every viewer wants to be blinkered in this way. And Mary-Arrchie Theatre, small as it may be, feeds an audience that wants working-class heroes who reflect real, vital communities, not the facile fancies of upper-class individualists. Heroic survival may indeed entail transcendence of the working class, but the losses should be as clear as the benefits. In Mary-Arrchie’s latest play, The Gut Girls, British playwright Sarah Daniels shows us the grit and suffering that underlie the supposed glory of class mobility, offering a remarkable tonic to class-blind American storytelling.

The Gut Girls introduces us to five women who work in the meat-gutting sheds of Victorian Deptford. Because their work is so disgusting, they’re the lowest of the working class, maligned as loose women, and thus liberated from the need to conform to any ladylike standards. “There’s only one thing worse than bein’ a gut girl, and that’s bein’ a whore,” they announce early on, laughing uproariously. Polly, Ellen, Kate, Maggie, and Annie are a tight-knit group partly because social ostracism has forced them to be. And when Lady Helena and her upper-class companion Priscilla start a social club to tame the gut girls into servant-class gentility, there are unexpected results. Lady Helena’s do-goodism forces the girls to conform or starve; class mobility takes its toll on their independence and strength.

The Gut Girls is a challenging but extremely rewarding production, one of the best I’ve seen this year. Kirsten Kelly directs with heart and efficiency, hitting all the emotional and intellectual beats while moving the group rapidly through the play’s quickly shifting scenes. The design team has made her job a pleasure. Tim Steimle’s set is both beautiful and flexible, a wooden platform stained bloodred that does quadruple duty as a gutting room, a barroom, a social hall, and an upper-class parlor. Amy Johnson’s sculptures and props provide a stark accompaniment to the period costumes and spare lighting: she’s created sides of beef in the shape of corsets that hang eerily at the rear of the stage as well as the viscerally real carcasses the women gut in the shed.

But it is the uniformly strong cast that really animates the complexities of Daniels’s play. Though the five gut girls form a cohesive unit, their eccentricities and distinctions are deftly established by Maia Rosenfeld, Naomi Jackson, Cherise Silvestri, Elizabeth English, and Sarah Pace. Their performances are not only enthusiastic but precise and skillful: subtle gestures and glances create a web of complicated relationships within the group. The minutiae of the women’s changing identities as they shift from being gut girls to doing other kinds of work is beautifully realized.

As Lady Helena, Deanna Cooke is willfully blind in her good intentions, her intensity justifying the mockery of her students yet allowing for the audience’s grudging respect. With Kathleen Powers as Priscilla, she represents the double-edged sword of respectability for upper-class Victorian women: protection and comfort seldom involved pleasure or choice. The evolving intimacy of Helena and Priscilla’s relationship and their growing attachment to the gut girls reflect the upper-class women’s need for community, which has been denied by personal and class isolation. Their stories resonate with those of the gut girls to offer a picture of the uncomfortable limitations of respectability as well as the dangers of working outside genteel society.

The male characters, ably played with a subtle blend of implicit power and impotence, contrast with the women and thus complete the cultural picture. David P. Skvarla and David Tierney create poignant, chilling portraits of the intriguing ambiguities of patriarchal power. Kelly’s cast trusted Daniels’s instincts rather than resorting to oversimplification, and as a result all the characters seem caught in a net of class expectations. No one is evil or innocent in Daniels’s world, driven by the push-pull of conformity and rebellion, subsistence and hope. For all of them–but particularly the women–survival means compromise. Not one can rip herself from her social context without tearing the fabric of her identity, often beyond repair.

Yet for all the play’s frankness and harshness, it’s a lush experience too, humorous and bright. The scenes in the gutting factory are as funny as they are gross. Lady Helena’s social gatherings shimmer with the gut girls’ gleeful rebellion against genteel artifice. The actors’ playfulness and willingness to take risks translate into a high-energy staging that brings the painful truths of Daniels’s story into dramatic reality gradually, entertainingly. This is a political play, but it’s far from a polemical rant.

We cannot perceive or understand these heroic women outside the context of their class. Their courage and brilliance become apparent as they negotiate their very survival in a culture that aims to keep everyone in her place, despite some small potential for mobility, and punishes those who transgress. I wish we had more plays like this one about American culture, but I’m grateful to Mary-Arrchie for bringing this English writer’s hard-hitting, witty work to Chicago. Maybe one of our homegrown talents will see The Gut Girls and venture into new territory.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater stil by Daniel Guidara.