A healthy Pulse

Top Girls

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Alexa Kelly
Pulse Ensemble
Non-union production (closed)
Review by John Michael Koroly

The debate over just how political is the personal has obsessed a good many playwrights to not much worthy effect. Caryl Churchill, though, has consistently cast an edifying light on the subject. Her 1982 Top Girls was recently revived by the Pulse troupe in a sterling production that truly cut to the heart of the issue.

While mostly realistic, the play opens with an extraordinary dream scene wherein a young woman, Marlene, recently promoted to a top position at her employment agency, hosts a banquet of historical and fictional personages.

As the Frascatti flows, stories are shared of remarkable exploits and ordeals. One strand of experience seems to thread through each of their lives, though: each has lost a child. It becomes apparent that Marlene also had a baby but turned it over to her sister, Joyce, to raise as her own while she pursued a business career. Now, years later, she seems to want her daughter back, leading to a searing confrontation with Joyce.

This final scene crystallizes the battle between selfish careerism (and its attendant conservative mindset) and selfless commitment to another. Marlene symbolizes the ruthless political dogma ascendant when the play was written. Margaret Thatcher hovers, unmentioned, over every one of Marlene's self-serving utterances.

Churchill's crowning achievement is that she keeps so many thematic plates spinning at once; like the question of the loss of a female "self" in moving up the male-dominated corporate ladder. Rather than distract, these provide illuminating sidelights to the central human conflict.

Director Kelly clearly understood all these angles. After some awkwardness in the opening scene, she was especially good at modulating an involving emotional pulse (no pun intended) throughout the action. The final confrontation scene was a triumph on all counts. Kelly wed actors to script in brilliant fashion as 20 years of love and bitter resentment wrestled within each woman to moving, fascinating effect.

The cast actually worked better as an ensemble than the cast of the original production at the Public Theatre (dominated as it was by Linda Hunt's presence). Susan McGeary was a volatile swirl of conflicted emotions and impulses, making each one wholly believable. Susan Barrett's broad turn as an armor-clad maiden in the first scene was quite funny, and her and Claudia Traub's performances as two underlings at Marlene's agency were rich and layered. Warm and earthy at their centers, they still had a cold, hard edge to them. Christine Jones's Isabella Bird was a bit stiff, but her later incarnation as an older woman seeking employment was supremely intelligent; a lady of obvious inner strength forced to shed her dignity in the search for a job in a fibrillating economy. Elizabeth Cloe had similar success in a like character, a teenager trying to pass as older, again in desperation for a job. Sydney Davolos was thoroughly convincing as a precocious young playmate of Marlene's daughter who, in turn, was affectingly played by Stephanie Fybel. It was Elizabeth Rothan, though, who delivered an utterly unforgettable reading of Joyce, her weathered face a beautifully detailed spiritual map, her body english a magnificently choreographed dance of pain and courage, her delivery eloquently nuanced and spellbindingly intense.

Janice Manser's set design overcame some cheesy production values to serve the action well. Kudos are also due to Eran Cole's perceptive costume choices (cool, chic couture to grungy kidwear) and Herrick Goldman's lighting, which included a marvelously understated use of warms within the chill of the final scene.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1997 John Michael Koroly

Return to OOBR Index
Return to Home Page