REVIEW: Callaloo Theatre Company Presents “Uncommon Women and Others”

by Barbara Waldinger

Wendy Wasserstein, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 55, wrote several plays about college-educated women of her generation who struggled to find their own identity in a male-dominated world.  One would imagine, given the current socio-political atmosphere, that these works would be ripe for revival in 2018.  Consequently, the Callaloo Theater Company decided to mount Uncommon Women and Others, which grew out of Wasserstein’s graduate thesis at Yale School of Drama and was produced Off-Broadway in 1977. Unfortunately, the effort has not paid off.

Wasserstein was known for her quirky characters, snappy dialogue and comedic sense that served to leaven the plight of late twentieth-century women as they tried to navigate a path between independent careers and family life.  Uncommon Women and Others follows eight students at Mount Holyoke College (Wasserstein’s alma mater) as they head towards graduation.  The play is a series of self-contained scenes bookended by a reunion of five of the students at a restaurant.

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According to Wasserstein’s notes,“the play is really a memory play and this should be made clear.”  But one problem is that it’s not clear, especially in this production.  The episodic style, jumping from scene to scene separated by recordings of period songs, makes no reference to date or time.  Introducing each scene is a recorded male voice (which is not easy to hear) in patronizing praise of the college’s uncommon women, who are “persons in their own rights.”  The Callaloo program states that the restaurant scenes take place in the present, though the dated dialogue is definitely not twenty-first century conversation, and further, that fifteen years have passed between the college scenes and the reunion, as opposed to the six years prescribed by Wasserstein.  The costumes remain the same with slight changes, per the playwright, but are particularly difficult to accept given the increased passage of time.  Though it is understandable why Director Karen Christina Jones would like to transport the play to the present, the result resembles a square peg forcibly squeezed into a round hole.

An additional problem is the dearth of plot. Uncommon Women and Others is full of discussion and angst about relationships, identity-crises and possible career paths, but nothing propels the action.  A memory play that looks back on the past, such as The Glass Menagerie, should attract and maintain the attention of the audience, which doesn’t happen in Wasserstein’s meandering reminiscence.  If Jones was searching for a feminist work with humor, she might have been better served selecting another one of this playwright’s offerings, such as the award-winning The Heidi Chronicles or The Sisters Rosensweig.

Given this script however, Jones has done an exemplary job with its physical aspects:  we assume, since there is no credit in the program given to set, costume, lighting or sound designers (except for set decorators Lori Porter and Susan Palm Siplon), that it is the director who has overseen them all.  Indeed, Jones is listed as both the lighting and sound operator.  The set, serving as both the college environment and the restaurant, is beautifully realized, with its three wooden tables and chairs of varying shapes and sizes, rugs, two upstage doors in close proximity, double glass doors facing outside greenery, and a fireplace and mantel on which is a lovely clock—a gracious room in which to hold the housemother’s Tea and Cookies.  The colorful college outfits exemplify the time period, which, according to Wasserstein, is 1978, and help to define the characters—notably Susie Friend’s pink outfit, headband and coat, Holly’s wide bell-bottom white pants covered in flowers and her leopard jacket, and Leilah’s capri jeans complete with pom-poms. The selection of music from the sixties, like Chapel of Love, and other lively and varied tunes, leads the actresses into energetic song and dance.

Jones uses the stage as well as the audience space to keep the action moving, often directing her actresses to enter and exit through the aisles of the theatre.  She choreographs the end of each scene with sensitivity and precision, as characters move onto and off the stage accompanied by music.  But the frequent use of the fourth wall, though appropriate when addressing a group represented by the audience (such as during the Father-Daughter luncheon), is off-putting when the actresses are supposedly delivering monologues to one another.

The performers, some with little or no previous acting experience, gamely throw themselves into their roles, with varying degrees of success. Particular kudos belong to Josephine O’Connor and Rachel Leah Pearlman, who lend their professionalism to the characters of Muffet and Holly, respectively, as they capture the confidence, the insecurities, and the humor of Wasserstein’s women.

Often directors of Community Theatre productions are called upon to fulfill multiple functions.  Karen Christina Jones has done yeoman work to apply her talents to every facet of this production.  One only wishes she had chosen a more suitable vehicle to demonstrate them.

Uncommon Women and Others runs from October 26—November 4 at Sand Lake Center for the Arts, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30.  For tickets call 518-674-2007 or online at slca-ctp.org.

Callaloo Theater Co. at Sand Lake Center for the Arts presents Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein.  Director:  Karen Christina Jones.  Cast:  J. J. Paul (Samantha Stewart), Rachel Leah Pearlman (Holly Kaplan), Julie Nordwind Adler (Kate Quin), Josephine O’Connor (Muffet Di Nicola), Michelle Sanders (Rita Altabel), Lori M. Porter (Mrs. Plumm), Sara Falvo (Susie Friend), Jill Sizzle (Carter), Susan Palm Siplon (Leilah).  Stage Manager:  Lori Porter.

Running Time:  two hours, including intermission, at Sand Lake Center for the Arts, 2880 NY-43, Averill Park, NY 12018, from October 26, closing November 4.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Callaloo Theatre Company Presents “Uncommon Women and Others”

  1. Hi Barbara – I play Rita in the production – I had hoped that it would be announced that I was on script because my first rehearsal was on Monday – the 22nd – I had 3 rehearsals before the show went up. I think that is an important detail to note. I was doing this as a favor to Julie Nordwind Adler(Kate).
    Michelle Sanders

    • Michelle – This IS a very important detail to note. Thank you for helping us understand the situation better. I will work with Barbara to amend her review. Best wishes for a successful second weekend of performances.

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