If you’re a woman, even if you become pope, explore the world or literally go through hell, it’s clear you’re still seen as just one of the girls. And if you do become one of the great alpha males, as the leading character does in the Williamstown revival of Carol Churchill’s theatrically bold and thematically provocative “Top Girls,” it doesn’t get any easier.
Director Jo Bonney revives the ’80s Thatcher-era British play with a crisp, clear, pitch-perfect production and a dream ensemble that’s in a class by itself. After nearly a quarter-century, Churchill’s cautionary play of gender and economic politics past and present still resonates, charms and chills.
Its reappearance now for a new generation of top girls and boys is especially timely. It provides a vast theatrical canvas for great actresses to boldly go where no men have dared.
Marlene (Jessica Hecht) has just landed an executive position at Top Girls, a top-notch employment agency in London. In the play’s first scene, she throws herself a dinner party with an unusual assortment of women from history, art and legend.
These include the ninth century’s Pope Joan (Ellen McLaughlin), the only woman said to have held the papal throne; Lady Nijo (Reiko Aylesworth), a Japanese courtesan who later became a Buddhist nun; Isabella Bird (Becky Ann Baker), a Victorian traveler and author; Patient Griselda (Elizabeth Reaser), the obedient heroine of one of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”; and Dull Gret (Laura Heisler), who in Brueghel’s painting leads a charge of women into Hell to battle evil.
As they relate their lives, struggles and accomplishments, it’s clear that this is a sisterhood of sadness, too, with each woman paying a price for her choices and sacrifices.
The scene, staged with the audience as guests as well, is alternately amusing, shocking and telling in its details. “I’m not a cheerful person,” confides the Asian courtesan. “I just laugh a lot.” Joan confesses that she loved possessing the papal — and male — infallibility. The furious Gret’s narrative of her march into hell is a gripping story of women who are not going to take it any more.
But however compelling the storytelling and however playful the interplay among the women, Churchill is interested in making more than a theatrical version of Judy Chicago’s famous feminist art installation.
After the fantastical dinner-party scene, the play turns real and we get a glimpse into Marlene’s 1980s world, first close up (she interviews a pathetic job-seeking woman) and then far away, as her slow-witted niece (Heisler), living in a working-class town, dreams of escaping to her aunt’s home in the city.
The shifts in time, place and style may be abrupt and a few of the scenes are overextended, but they set the stage for the second act, where it becomes clear that Marlene’s triumph of power is not the victory for women that it appears to be but merely a capitulation to the trappings of the male world, including alcoholism, promiscuity and selfishness.
The play climaxes with a confrontation between Marlene and her hardscrabble sister (Becky Ann Baker), stunningly staged and acted in a fury of personal and political resentment that is almost too painful to watch in its raw realism and hateful rhythms. Marlene is revealed to be not a woman of accomplishment but an iron maiden turned hard, heartless and Darwinian, one who had abandoned not just her gender but her class and family as well. (“She’s a bit thick, a bit funny,” says Marlene coldly of her devoted niece. “She’s not going to make it.”)
The play’s final child-left-behind nightmare image is haunting and frightening.
Bonney directs a splendid cast, including a remarkable turn by Heisler as both the unrelenting Dull Gret and, later, the heartbreaking Angie in an unsentimental perf. Baker does triple duty, as woolly Victorian Bird, the wounded wife of a displaced worker and especially as Marlene’s fierce working-class sister.
Brienin Bryant transforms herself from Angie’s friend Kit to Shona, a street-walking top girl of another kind. McLaughlin brings distinction as two women who turned themselves into men to little avail: Pope Joan and Louise, a bitter and aging woman passed over once again for promotion.
David Zinn’s sets provides the great spaces and the intimate alcoves in which Churchill’s women live, hide and wait. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes are perfect in their details, too, from the courtesan’s sweeping sleeves to Louise’s buttoned-up suit.