The New York Times

Review: ‘Women Without Men,’ a Learning Experience of Sorts

March 26, 2016

The staff sitting room at the Malyn Park Private School looks snug enough. Yes, the fire is less than blazing and a few of the cushions are threadbare, but the chairs are covered in a cheerful green, the rug looks soft underfoot and the lamps cast a warm glow. You wouldn’t think so much malice could lurk somewhere quite so cozy.

One clue: The girls of the school have nicknamed it “The Tyrant’s Den.”

Hazel Ellis’s “Women Without Men,” produced by the Mint Theater Company at City Center, concentrates on a group of unmarried women who have stayed schoolteachers out of helplessness or inertia rather than any calling or passion. Deprived of much freedom and many comforts (they have one afternoon off per week and hot baths are a rationed luxury), they turn on one another, fanning trifling grievances, exaggerating minor slights. A newcomer to the school, the still idealistic Miss Wade (Emily Walton), marvels, “Why should we all unite in making each other’s lives a little hell of trivial tortures?”

“What else would you expect?” answers Miss Strong (Mary Bacon). “A small group of women all cooped up together with no release from each other save in the privacy of our bedrooms. Women brought together not by choice, not by liking, but by the necessity of earning our living.”

This 1938 play, which the Mint has resurrected under Jenn Thompson’s direction, is a mostly sturdy and occasionally creaky construction about the perils of a circumscribed life. Many feminist plays of the early 20th century (such as those by Susan Glaspell, Rachel Crothers and Sophie Treadwell) largely focus on the ways in which social pressures, particularly those deployed by men, can blight women’s lives. Social pressures are at work here, too, but in the play the women manage the blighting all on their own.

Ellis, an Irish playwright who attended a school much like Malyn Park, is expert in depicting the minutiae of relations among the women, the use of pet names without pet feelings, the flimsy loyalties and simmering jealousies. (The tense atmosphere is a bit like that of the Lillian Hellman play “The Children’s Hour,” though without the rumor of lesbianism.) The only false notes are those involving a pallid and unmysterious whodunit in which one teacher’s work is destroyed and another faculty member is suspected. But even here Ellis is wise enough to let some motivations go unspoken, to allow her characters their full, complicated and not always sympathetic emotional lives.

The acting is generally skillful, though the three younger actresses playing schoolgirls don’t yet seem quite at home in this world. Ms. Walton nicely charts Miss Wade’s growing disillusionment, while Ms. Bacon offers a portrait of a woman whose illusions have long since flown. Kellie Overbey is formidable as the starchy Miss Connor and Kate Middleton provides bitter comic relief as the flighty Miss Ridgeway.

Having spent so much time in their purposefully uncomfortable company, it is hard not to cheer Miss Wade when she announces her intention of abandoning the profession. “I’m chucking teaching,” she says. “It’s a horrible beastly life.”