About Face Theatre’s midwest premiere of this empowering Bryna Turner-penned comedy explores the connection between academics and feminists Mary Emma Woolley and Jeannette Marks during their time at Mount Holyoke College in the early 20th century. The women never publicly acknowledged a romantic relationship, but Turner pulls from the historical record (and takes some liberties with modern language) to paint an intimate picture of a couple struggling to find common ground while playing active roles in the growing women’s suffrage movement.
Kelli Simpkins shines as take-no-prisoners college president Woolley, exuding both confidence in her ideas and touching vulnerability as Woolley’s revolutionary acts, such as shutting down the “domestic services” department, continue to be questioned by the conservative college community and politicians in the outside world.
As Marks, Emjoy Gavino gracefully acts her way through remarkable character growth in the show’s 80 minutes. While Marks begins the play as a childish and petulant young professor who fears she’s “becoming regional” at Holyoke, she ends as a passionate educator hell-bent on blurring the lines between students and faculty. In the case of one student, Pearl, played by Aurora Adachi-Winter, the line blurs itself into a sexual relationship we’re told is reminiscent of Woolley and Marks’s backstory. It’s a moving commentary on the cyclical nature of human connections and the emotional toll of living with a secret, and Adachi-Winter plays Pearl’s first-broken-heart, nervous-breakdown-style monologue with relatable rage and crumpled charisma. Given the show’s rapid pace and decades-long time line, make sure to explore additional information on the women posted around the theater for added context. v