Chances are you’ve never heard of Hazel Ellis. And why should you? The Irish actress-playwright only wrote two plays, and after her second, “Women Without Men,” was produced by Dublin’s Gate Theater in 1938, she dropped off the theatrical stage Although well-received, the play was not published and never revived until the Mint Theater Company’s vigilant artistic director, Jonathan Bank, unearthed it for this excellent Off Broadway production.
With no men around to better focus their spleen, the female teachers at a Dublin boarding school for young ladies slug it out over matters personal and professional. Skins are thin, feelings are hurt, and petty squabbles have a way of escalating into open warfare.
When Miss Jean Wade (Emily Walton), an idealistic new teacher, presents herself at the teachers’ lounge on the first day of term, she harbors the hope that communal life in the company of other women would be a refuge from the uncertainties of an economic recession. “With the world in such a mess today, it’s wonderful to think of something, even a room, going on and on for years,” she says. “It gives a sense of solidity.”
The newcomer makes the mistake of thinking that teaching at a small school would be intimate and homey, like being in a family. But the tough-minded Miss Marjorie Strong (Mary Bacon) wises her up about that notion. “Small schools are worse,” she tells her. “More confined — gets on your nerves more.”
School hasn’t even started, but tensions are already building up in the teachers’ lounge that set designer Vicki R. Davis has rendered with just the right note of shabby gentility. Perky Miss Ruby Ridgeway (Kate Middleton) taunts the others with her popularity with the students. Quarrelsome Miss Willoughby (Aedin Moloney) and Miss Ridgeway are already squabbling about the bedroom they’re forced to share. And the elderly French teacher, Mademoiselle Vernier (Dee Pelletier), is so shabbily treated, she leaves the present company without tasting the elaborate tea she’s prepared.
The most hurtful attacks are launched by the overbearing Miss Connor (Kellie Overbey), whose life’s work has been the composition of a History of Beautiful Acts Throughout the Ages. (Sir Walter Raleigh and his cloak, and so forth.) Her chosen victim is Miss Wade, who made the mistake of rejecting the older teacher’s overtures of friendship, which included such pearls of advice as: “Whatever you do, don’t try to make friends with the girls. It will only lead to impertinence.”
Overbey and Walton put their hearts into this juicy contretemps. But there’s absolutely no grandstanding in director Jenn Thompson’s beautifully composed ensemble piece. Individually, the performances are distinctive, but the collective work of the company is even more impressive.
Ellis’ voice is as tart as her wit, and the players clearly relish the surprisingly contemporary tone of an 80-year-old period play. Bacon, in particular, seems to take great pleasure in the cynical wisdom of the pessimistic Miss Strong, who makes Miss Wade’s optimism seem absurdly naive. While the idealistic Miss Wade may be the ostensible heroine of this piece, only Miss Strong gets great lines on the order of: “I like naughty children. They’re so much more alive.”
After starting out as a conventional revival house, the Mint has evolved into more of a rescue clinic for lost and forgotten plays, a surprising number of them written by women. Even in the company of playwrights like Rachel Crothers and Susan Glaspell, Hazel Ellis is a real find.