nytheatre.com review by Josephine Cashman
March 17, 2006
A curious thing happened after World War II: women who had entered the workforce during wartime were suddenly expected to return home, forget their own ambitions and careers, and devote their lives to their husbands and the children they were expected to have. River Heights Productions' New York premiere of Doris Baizley’s phenomenal comedy, Mrs. California, shows the frustrations of these women, and how society forced a lifestyle upon them that many of them didn’t want. Instead of being rewarded for their individual achievements, they’re praised for their ability to procreate and iron shirts. Without their femininity, they are considered less than worthless.
Dot (played by Heather Cunningham) has entered a televised “Best Homemaker” Contest, where she will compete in such “womanly” competitions as table setting, cooking dinner, and sewing aprons. These kinds of contests actually occurred in 1950s America, and the comedy and satire of Mrs. California is biting, witty, and certainly shows the feminist backlash that occurred during this time with both sympathy and ridicule.
Dot, who was an ensign in the WAVES and saved a naval convoy during the war, has entered the Mrs. California Homemaker Contest at the behest of her best friend Babs (Elizabeth Burke), a women who was laid off from being a master electrician wiring bombers. Babs is separated from her husband and is clearly dissatisfied with the role of “homemaker” that has been thrust upon her; whereas Dot is the compliant, sweet, and perfect mother with the perfect marriage, Babs is fiery, rebellious, and furious, setting up a tragically funny character conflict. As the contest progresses, Dot finds herself questioning her own values, and how important it is for her to win.
Cunningham and Burke do a nice job showing the close friendship and banter between the two women. Kristen Vaughan, Matilda Downey, and India Myone McDonald, are terrific as the other contestants, as they manage to portray both their doll-like exteriors as well as their own private struggles. It’s distressing when Vaughan’s character reaches out to Dot, only to be rebuffed. Dave DiLoreto is stiff in his role as Dudley, Dot’s corporate sponsor and resident Stuffed Shirt. Director Megan R. Wills has some interesting ideas and a great concept for the piece, but at times she appears more concerned with playing up the tragedy of these women, rather than trusting that the comedic satire will deliver the message with a far more effective punch.
The set design by Viviane Galloway is inspired—these three-dimensional, vibrant women are forced to live in a two-dimensional world. The paper-doll house set is both chilling and cute, and both sound designer Di Drago and lighting designer Robert Eberle do a fine job adding to this suffocating, but still pointedly funny, world.
Mrs. California is a valiant effort with a lot of heart, and River Heights Productions should be praised for being the first company to bring this marvelous play to New York City. The play is remarkably adept at showing how women have been fighting to be treated as individuals for generations, and how “femininity” (and perhaps “feminism”) is an ever-changing concept. It also highlights a very important message—that behind every great woman is another great woman who is her friend.