Reading Keira Fromm’s director’s note in the program for her production of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” at Remy Bumppo, I was struck by her passion and engagement for this play, qualities I always hope for from a director. Fromm loves this play a great deal and that love leaps right off the page and into our hearts and minds.
It’s unfortunate then that this love has failed to manifest itself in Fromm’s production. This “Top Girls” has select moments of resonance and inspiration, lodged between large stretches of dry performance, inconsistent English accents, and a production that has an overall lack of drive and momentum, with scenes and acts ending without any form of buildup or tension. For a ninety-minute show, this might be a slight hurdle. For a three-act, almost three-hour drama, it’s practically insurmountable.
Churchill’s play purports to be about Marlene (Linda Gillum), a woman striving for power and success in a society where these opportunities are limited for anyone who isn’t a man. The play’s actual focus is more so on the women and ideas that float around Marlene’s periphery: the co-workers at her employment agency office (Karissa Murrell Myers and Rebecca Hurd), her overly attached niece, Angie (Aurora Real de Asua, giving the production’s standout performance), and the historical women in the play’s infamous opening dinner scene, who project Marlene’s splintered views of her own feminist ambition. Marlene is, arguably, the least interesting character in her own story, even as we begin to delve deeper into the questionable choices she made to gain power in a world where that power isn’t promised.
But the “why” of this production hangs in perpetuity, not only as a piece of theater written specifically for the Thatcher-infected England of the early eighties but also as a play that this very theater company produced almost twenty years ago (core ensemble member Annabel Armour reprises her role from that version here). There are elements of Churchill’s analysis and critique of eighties feminism that are, sadly, still relevant today but they are hopelessly steeped in arguments hyper-specific to this period of time (cemented by Raquel Adorno and Meeka Postman’s period-specific costume design as well as Sarah D. Espinoza’s pop-infused eighties sound design). This leads to a place where any contemporary resonance can’t be created by the production itself. These newer takes need to be brought to the table by the audience. I can only hope that everyone is viewing it through the contemporary perspective that is necessary in the theater.
Fromm’s note ends with the hope that the men in the audience will come to see the women in their life “with greater kindness and compassion and become more vocal advocates for women in the world.” Perhaps the best way to embody this hope is to work on producing more contemporary female playwrights (heck, maybe even playwrights outside of the gender binary altogether) and promoting those who are theatrically chronicling contemporary issues of gender and power, so we’re not forced to look back forty years to try and examine today’s world. (Ben Kaye)
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, (773)975-8150, remybumppo.org, $15-$47.75. Through February 22.