Miss Lulu Bett
nytheatre.com review by Susan Jonas
March 19, 2010
Miss Lulu Bett was the first play by a woman to win the Pulitzer; it's also a fine play. When first produced in 1920, it suggested to critics an American Doll's House. But one week into the run, allegedly because of audience complaints, playwright Zona Gale revised the ending, making it more a conventional but only superficially "happy" one. The WorkShop Theatre Company wisely enacts the original ending.
A "typical" middle class small-town Midwestern family is ruled by Dwight Deacon, a self-congratulating patriarch who veils his tyranny with phony affability, ceaseless passive aggressive teasing, and witless jokes only he finds funny. He is indulged by his ingratiating wife Ina, and tolerated by Ina's sister Lulu and their mother Mrs. Bett. The latter two live on the goodwill of Dwight who never misses an opportunity to remind them of it. Mind you, Lulu earns their keep; she's been the household drudge for 15 years—cleaning, cooking, serving, and providing child care. Her total dependence as an unmarried, uneducated, unskilled woman compels her to keep her tongue. The Deacons' teenaged daughter Diana decides that the only ticket "out" of the "happy family" is to use her unsophisticated charms to persuade young Bobby Larkin to elope with her. And the youngest, bratty Monona, survives by tormenting her parents, frequently chanting, "I know a song that gets on everybody's nerves..." And she does.
When Dwight's brother visits, things change. Ninian returns from 25 years of exotic travels, a romantic figure who dazzles the females of the household. His power is charm as opposed to his brother's which is purely economic. Ninian is the window on the world outside of this small, insidiously introverted town. What he does that most upsets the household is to refuse to take Lulu for granted, insinuating she may actually be human. This shatters the myth that the Deacons are selfless providers, exposing their exploitation and ingratitude. Lulu, the spinster sister is "too weak to work," yet manages to spend all her waking hours at domestic labor not considered worthy of remuneration or acknowledgment. As Ninian, appalled by his brother's treatment of Lulu, engages her in conversation, showing genuine interest that extends beyond her cooking, it becomes apparent—to him and to us—that beneath her servile resignation lies intelligence, longing, and sly wit. Much to everyone's surprise, Ninian marries Lulu. Rather than cheer her change of fortune, the household wonders who will do her work.
A month later Lulu returns to the Deacon home—alone. Though Lulu's situation may seem unchanged, she herself has changed greatly. Clearly there's no returning to the status quo. The final act is surprising, radical and humanist.
The WorkShop's sincere and often elegant production uses humor across a range from warm to biting, subtle to theatrical. The spare but evocative set, designed by Craig M. Napoliello, brings us into the pleasant oppression of the Deacon home, where even the rails of the porch banister subtly suggest prison bars. Diana Duecker's atmospheric lighting conjures the mood and the milieu, and the staging by director Kathleen Brant orchestrates details like the slapping of mosquitoes, making us feel that early evening summer heat. The period dress is convincing rather than "costumey," with Miss Lulu's apparel especially telling, as it distinguishes between the worn ill-fitting hand-me-downs and the proud store-bought outfits.
All the actors achieve moments of insight and poignancy, but often they don't seem to be in the same world. Sometimes actors seem to be performing for a larger house, while other times they appreciate that intimate space and naturalistic writing require greater restraint. Quieter nuanced moments, and there are many, better support the understated writing. David M. Mead as Dwight Deacon and Anne Fizzard as Ina Deacon have created vivid characters, but it's hard to lose sight of the actors articulating them. As Cornish, an older man wooing Diana, Michael Gnat alternates between finely drawn, touching social awkwardness that bespeaks decency and a capacity for tenderness, and a bumbling stuttering caricature. This may be a directorial choice, but I fear the self-conscious farcical elements undercut the humanity of the play.
Though slightly handicapped by youth and beauty, Laurie Schroeder manages to convince us she is a plain woman, almost 34, who might pass unnoticed and undesired into spinsterhood. Schroeder's best moments capture Lulu's tamped-down pluck, her quiet bitter resolution, thoughtful self-awareness, self-deprecating humor, and the complex mix of pride and desperation for any break from routine. But at times she resorts to emotional hyperbole. Don Patrick Brady is utterly believable as the observant once-handsome suitor—honestly kind if also irresponsibly dishonest. Similarly, Ben Sumrall as Bobby Larkin maintains a consistent low-key truthfulness. As Mrs. Bett, Gerriane Raphael is an absolute pro, capturing the mood swings of an older woman who, though she presents the first signs of dementia, is generally alert and acerbic, though capable of moments of insight and compassion. Here we truly see the character and not the performance. Mary Ruth Baggott portrays teenager Diana Deacon without a whit of condescension, and is utterly believable when she is telling a bald-faced lie. Kate Castaneda-La Mar is charmingly horrid as the self-dramatizing and insufferable Monona who lives to annoy, and can turn on the tears at the drop of a "WAAAAHHHHH!" When the adults actors erupt similarly the play veers away from incisive satire and towards parody. At times director Brant seems to strive for the distancing effect of heightened style, while at other times her subtlety seems more authentic and more powerful.
Despite some inconsistencies, there is much here to be admired and enjoyed, and given more time, the production is likely to come together. I encourage you to take the opportunity to familiarize yourself with this little-known gem that says so much that is still resonant about gender, class, power, and economics, from a point-of-view rarely given voice.