BWW Review: Jonathan Leaf Explores The Roots Of Second Wave Feminism With Singular Artistry and Rigor in THE FIGHT
"In the left corner, in an elegant, sexy cream dress, burgundy belt, and high heels, we have Phyllis Feinberg from Columbus, Ohio, representing a broad, inclusive vision of women's rights which emphasizes reproductive freedom and acknowledges the concerns of lesbians and minorities.... In the right corner, in a frumpy loose-fitting house dress, sensible flats, and no makeup, we have Doris Marguiles from Racine, Wisconsin, representing married (white) women focused on childcare, workplace equality and educational opportunity..." The very title of THE FIGHT encourages us to imagine the rivalry between Phyllis Feinberg (Fleur Alys Dobbins) and Doris Marguiles (Judith Hawking)--obviously fictional names for Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan---in pugilistic terms.
Deftly directed by Peter Dobbins, artistic director for the Storm Theater Company (which is currently in its twentieth season), Leaf's meticulously researched play explores the ideological and personal conflicts within Second Wave feminism, taking the 1973 meeting of the National Woman's Caucus in Houston as its dramatic focal point. EMF's "Unbelievable" blasts at the play's opening, a stroke of genius, really, by sound designer Caroline Eng. The mega-hit not only evokes the early 1990s; the lyrics (to which I never paid attention) are eerily apt. Michael Abrams' set is spare, but Danica Martino's costume design complements Eng's work, instantly catapulting us to the era of high-waisted jeans, lumberjack turtleneck blouses, high and tight ponytails, and clunky booties. (Alas, those have made a comeback in 2017.)
Like his last work, Deconstruction (which I also reviewed), THE FIGHT is part-mystery and part-intellectual history. Deservedly profiled by Timeout New York and compared to Saul Bellow, Leaf excels at the sustained, careful exposition of concepts and characters through sharp,realistic dialogue. One thinks of George Eliot's line in Daniel Deronda's Book II: "The moment of finding a fellow-creature is often as full of mingled doubt and exultation as the moment of finding an idea." Leaf's plays are cerebral yet full of emotion, "mingl[ing]" ideas with with their messy human manifestations in ways Eliot, an irreducibly philosophical novelist, would approve.
A worthy successor to Deconstruction, which tackled large, difficult philosophical problems via the personal lives of those ideas' best-known proponents (Paul De Man and Hannah Arendt), THE FIGHT asks two questions: 1) Was the election in Houston rigged in Bella Abzug's favor? and 2) If it was, did Steinem know and/or participate in the destruction of ballots cast for Friedan?
Our detective, who also functions as an indirect moderator (or referee, to return to the boxing analogy), is Caitin Schultz (Laura Bozzone), a young doctoral student whose dissertation centers on the warring factions within the Women's Movement. Indirect, because Phyllis and Doris address each other in just one (powerhouse) scene late in Act II when they cross paths at Chicago's O'Hare airport in the 1990s.
But Caitlin is not a mere go-between. THE FIGHT is brilliant partly because this young woman pretending to objectivity (who is both tougher and smarter than she initially appears) turns out to have her own biases, agenda, and yes, domestic problems. A single mom to a male toddler whose father is her thesis adviser and whose fellowship money is nearly gone, Caitlin is running out of time. Finding out of what really happened in Houston is not merely a matter of academic curiosity, but of financial necessity. At stake is a book deal based on her current article.
In one of the play's most poignant scenes, she reveals to Doris that pictures of her nieces and nephews make her "weep." Caitlin would never trade places with her stultified housewife sister whose husband is an unenlightened dolt but a decent provider (precisely the scenario Friedan paints in The Feminine Mystique), but she envies her sister's financial security and desperately wants another child.
An advocate of motherhood and marriage (which, in a key scene, she calls "healthy aspirations" for women, rather than universal or absolute requirements), Doris is highly sympathetic to Caitlin's maternal desires. Given that motherhood became a crux (if not the crux) of the virulent conflict between Steinem and Friedan, the exchange is crucial. Doris becomes invested in Caitlin's research project, even suggesting that Caitlin might become the daughter she never had, only when she sees it as a means to an end, namely a second child.
"I'm not superwoman," Caitlin says with sadness. Like a good Jewish mother, Doris presses, "Though if you were famous..." Her stance is clear--and believable, given the pride Doris takes in the children who came from her otherwise unenviable marriage in which she and her husband took turns beating one another. Ideally, a woman would raise a child with a man, but if that isn't possible, Doris argues, the reproductive imperative justifies an unconventional route to motherhood.
THE FIGHT is more than a story about two enemies, a word Phyllis disdains. The injection of a third term--Caitlin--triangulates the drama, which complicates our assessments. This is surely deliberate--and to Leaf's credit. If you're looking for easy answers, in the form of a heroine and a villainess, you won't find them in THE FIGHT. Leaf presents the evidence and lets the audience decide who, if anyone, has a legitimate claim to the moral high ground.
But to read Kyle Smith's piece on THE FIGHT in the National Review, "How Feminism Ditched Marriage and Motherhood for 'Intersectionality'," one would think Leaf set out to portray Steinem as a "shifty" (his word), baby-killing femme fatale fixated on diversity, "lesbianism," and the "neo-Marxist attempt to frame women as the new proletarian class, angry and destined to seize history's reins." ("Lesbianism!" a well-known New York author wrote to me privately.) For a moment, I thought I'd stumbled across a Pat Robertson screed, or the speech of an Oklahama Republican who warned of "rampant lesbianism."
As if the threat of "lesbianism" weren't bad enough, Smith characterizes Second Wavers as pinko commies. In a single sentence, he describes as "Neo-Marxist" the attempt by "angry" women to influence the course of history--because God forbid women take, or "seize," the "reins" of power. (In fairness, "brassieres" and "Bolsheviks" do start with the same letter, at least in English, but I'm not buying this outlandish equation.)
Smith manages to drag Hillary Clinton into this mess, too: "The charge [against Steinem] is unproven, but how much of a stretch of the imagination is required to believe that one liberal Democrat might have sabotaged another's chances of winning an election?" (I'm going to say a really big stretch. There's has to be a flag on that critical play: Steinem must have rigged an election in 1973 because Hillary "rigged" the primary election against Bernie Sanders?) And not one to lose an opportunity to take a shot at Hollywood liberals, Smith even co-opts the Harvey Weinstein scandal for his own purposes, based on a stunning revelation that emerges late in the play. Impressive.
Predictably, the former New York Post film critic shamelessly imposes his ideological agenda on a defenseless, unsuspecting work of art (by someone he claims as a friend, no less), and does Leaf's play and its fine cast a great injustice in the process. For Smith, THE FIGHT is a "cultural corrective" that includes a "long overdue appraisal of the Steinem legend." Ironic, given the (often correct) conservative view that left-wing critics do precisely this to score ideological points about race, class, and gender. But for the dramatic disclosure late in the play, Smith says the work would have been "inconclusive" and thus frustrating, which says more about Smith's discomfort with ambiguity than it does about the stellar writing and acting up to that point.
Contra Smith, feminism didn't "ditch" motherhood. As recently as 2016 on a much-anticipated trip to Ireland, Steinem stated unequivocally, "The principle of reproductive freedom protects your right to have children just as it protects other women's right not to. I respect your power and I hope you respect mine."
And if women have come to feel that they can lead meaningful and rewarding lives without children--a view Doris vehemently denies even into the 1990s, years after she reversed her position on the place of lesbians in the Women's Movement after refusing to participate in the Lavender March on Fifth Avenue in the late 1960s--it certainly wasn't due to the movement's post-1973 embrace of gay and lesbian rights, much less the concerns of women of color (who, last I checked, also reproduce in heterosexual unions). If Smith has a problem with abortion (or lesbians), he should just come out and say so, rather than projecting his anti-choice, anti-gay views on Leaf or his excellent play.
A further irony: a feminist might reasonably object to aspects of Steinem's positions post-2000 (I do), and if Leaf had instead written a play set in the 21st Century, Smith might be on stronger ground. But he attacks Steinem's greatest achievement: her tireless fight to secure and preserve reproductive freedom for all women: "Phyllis, like Steinem, had an abortion at a young age and made 'reproductive freedom,' as she styled it, central to the feminist agenda." The scare quotes and patronizing qualification ("as she styled it") leaves little doubt in what regard Smith holds abortion rights and their relation to women's rights.
Leaf's view is not so simple. When Phyllis tells the handsome boyfriend she hardly knows that she's "late," Phyllis says that she isn't ready for "it all to end," "it" meaning all the possibilities that lie ahead. Stanley (Matthew Provenza), a stuffy, selfish, chauvinistic Brit, considers her as a monster for even thinking about having an abortion. That doesn't mean the play endorses his view. Had Leaf intended to portray Phyllis as monstrous, he wouldn't have cast the luminous Dobbins, who communicates intelligence and grace in every line. And the direction would have been quite different had Leaf wanted to demonize Steinem via Phyllis.
Understandably, some may be uncomfortable with Phyllis' characterization of abortion as "beautiful"; Doris certainly is. But if you believe that having a baby limits a woman's freedom (and if you don't, there's nothing anyone can say to change your mind), and you further believe that a woman's ability to achieve her fullest potential (however she defines this) is a beautiful thing, then it follows that abortion is beautiful because it facilitates the pursuit of a beautiful life.
Like many unhappily married women with children, who gave up their careers, dreams, and hobbies, Doris takes all this personally. She wields the news of her son's MacArthur Genius grant like a sword, cruelly dismissing Phyllis' childless life as pitiful and worthless. Doris' traumas predate marriage, of course. The scene with her physicist boyfriend, Barry Levine (Matthew Provenza), who leaves her in the wake of a prestigious award at UC Berkeley she is the first woman to receive, is gut-wrenching. (Matthew Provenza also plays Doris' husband, Phyllis' boyfriend Stanley, and a hospital orderly, with equal skill.) It's the story countless women have lived, if smarter and/or more successful than the men they date or marry.
The scene with Doris' ailing father, Harry (Mark Quiles), is both painful and sweet. (Quiles also plays the Mort Zuckerberg character, Milt Kahn, with all the swagger of a billionaire who summers in Watermill, Phyllis' father, and the sexist airline executive whose misogyny finally prompted Phyllis to identify as a feminist.) Doris is like an auxiliary wife to Harry, a role no daughter should have to perform, however feckless or absent the wife. In short, Doris has all kinds of mishigas, and Hawking delivers a masterful performance both as the vulnerable young Doris and her brittle, bitter incarnation late in life. Interestingly but not surprisingly, Smith focuses entirely on Phyllis' early trauma: a mentally ill, physically abusive mother who was eventually institutionalized and a mostly absent father. But Leaf devotes equal time to traumas that shaped both women.
Leaf's wedding (pun intended) of the conceptual to the personal in THE FIGHT might easily devolve into reductive psycho-biography, as Phyllis pejoratively defines the genre when she meets Caitlin in her New York office at Woman (Ms., Steinem's influential but often fledgling magazine). Adamant that any book Caitlin might write focus on the issues and considerable common ground between Phyllis and Doris rather than on their personal animus, she says, "So, if you're going to do more than this thesis, going to write such a book - a history, a general account...You mustn't let it become... they call it psychobiography?...I often say you can emphasize the first two syllables -- pysch-o --in regarding those writers. I won't - can't - belittle Doris, going through the personal...That's something men like to do, to try and tear us down. You know, editing Woman, I've never permitted that kind of writing in the magazine" (emphasis mine).
Smith's review validates Phyllis' concerns about how men tear women down. He's not alone, of course, in using personal details to discredit a woman's political position. Happily, Leaf uses biography to amplify our understanding of complex historical figures and the ideas they put forth. Moreover, Leaf's approach is particularly suited to this material. "The personal is political"--the title of a seminal paper by Carol Hanish which began as a memo she wrote in 1969--became a rallying cry of Second Wave feminism.
A discussion of the way Hanish reads after seeing THE FIGHT lies beyond the scope of this review, but I am impressed by how subtly Leaf plays with the very ideas of "personal" and political." By "political" Hanish meant to describe power relations generally. "Personal" referred to "abortion, sex, and appearances."
The proper lesson to draw from the avalanche of sexual misconduct--in and out of Hollywood--is that Hanish and her cohort were right: the personal and the political are inextricably, and at times, tragically, intertwined. We haven't figured this problem out, so as much as conservatives dislike "theory" (and as a recovering PhD candidate in English, I get that), there remains a place for such thought. The work of understanding and defining the two spheres so that all human beings can navigate life's inevitable hierarchies without the emotional carnage that results from this particular misuse of power has never been more urgent.