BWW Review: Keegan Theatre's TOP GIRLS is Still Relevant and Still Faulty
Anyone doubting the relevance of Caryl Churchill's 1981 play Top Girls and its examination of second wave feminism should look no further than the Financial Times. For on the morning following the opening night of Keegan Theatre's production, and on the anniversary of Hillary Clinton's failed bid to shatter the highest glass ceiling in electoral politics, London's leading financial newspaper released a study which found that women 'still face an uphill battle to break into British boardrooms.' Once again, Churchill's play is a timely albeit imperfect examination of feminism, gender roles, and societal expectations set against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher's early premiership.
While perhaps most famous for Act I's dinner party, the heart of the play remains solidly in Act II. Led by Karina Hilleard, Keegan's impassioned cast, brings alive a dazzling array of dinner guests in Act I, and the challenges women in business face in Act II. The fact that Act III dissolves into a predictable political debate over the policies of Thatcher, the first female leader popularly elected by a major power, seems rushed, unfinished and lacking in originality - as if there was something more Churchill wanted to say but could not or did not.
Having just been promoted to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency, Marlene (Karina Hilleard) celebrates by hosting a dinner party consisting of fictional and historical guests. There is the fabled female pope, Pope Joan (Jessica Lefkow), Japanese concubine Lady Nijo (Alexandra Maria Palting), nineteenth century explorer Isabella Bird (Susan Marie Rhea), Dull Gret (Caroline Dubberly) who was the subject of a painting by Danish artist Pieter Breughel, and from The Canterbury Tales Griselda (Amanda Forstrom). With each guest comes a story of sacrifice and suffering due to their gender and the roles and responsibilities cast upon them by society. And while each woman is remarkable, Lefkow's performance as Pope Joan is spectacular. Her performance perfectly blends piety with passion; wisdom gained from emotional suffering and ultimately triumph.
Where Act I falters is with Amber Paige McGinnis' direction. The cast seems to be speaking at, rather than with each other, leaving conversations interrupted and hard to comprehend. The first few minutes of the play can feel disorienting, leaving Churchill's story and message a bit muddled. Matthew J. Keenan's set design has the guests facing the audience, which makes the action easier to discern, but nevertheless, patience at this dinner party is definitely a virtue.
Whereas Act I has a mythological feeling to it, Act II is grounded in reality. In the second scene of Act II, we find ourselves in the Top Girls employment agency where Marlene, along with colleagues Nell (Amanda Forstrom) and Win (Alexandra Maria Palting), are facing the challenges of being a woman in the workplace. The most notable meeting is when Win is interviewing Louise (Jessica Lefkow), who is looking for a new job. Despite consistent loyalty to her company and a stellar performance record, Louise often finds her male colleagues promoted ahead of her, think Lilly Tomlin's character in 9 to 5. The scene is remarkable for the conflict it presents - the struggle women face in getting ahead, but also the inter-generational conflict over perception and behavior. Palting's Win is scrumptiously patronizing by suggesting that Louise simply loosen up, have a drink and dress sexier. In contrast, Lefkow's performance is the model of British manners, politely, yet firmly refusing her advice, believing she can be judged on merit alone.
When the action shifts across the set to Marlene, she's facing her own battle suddenly having to defend her promotion. The provocateur is none other than Mrs. Kidd (Susan Marie Rhea), wife of the man she defeated for the position. Hilleard is at her best here with a tone and stance that reads, 'I have to defend myself against men who already think I'm not qualified for the position, and now women as well?'
Alison Samantha Johnson eighties-chic costumes are on full display with Act II. It is worth noting how the various characters dress in accordance with the typical stereotypes of their age, position, social status and what that may say about them. This is a small detail, but one that matters considering how women, more than men, are judged by appearance.
Act III moves to the countryside where we learn a bit more about Marlene's home and family life. This is where Top Girls examination of feminism failed to connect to the two previous acts.
In the last two acts we have met Marlene, watched the interaction with her historical and fictional idols, and cheered her on when she's forced to defend her professional success, and now Churchill turns her into a villain. Why? Even worse, is that for a playwright who showed such imagination in Act I and societal insight with Act II, Act III lacks originality.
We learn about Marlene's parents; meet her sister Joyce (Susan Marie Rhea) and understand the complicated relationship with her immature niece Angie (Caroline Dubberly). And yes, there is a certain soap opera quality in the family dynamic. However, it is when Joyce and Marlene devolve into a political argument over Thatcherism that you become disappointed with Top Girls. It is not that their arguments lack reason, but rather potential. There is so much more that could have been said in examining Thatcherism and feminism rather than just hurling cheap insults that can be summarized as 'Thatcher bad.'
Watching Top Girls you can't help but have a feeling of déjà vu - that many of the issues raised by Churchill are still ongoing. You also have a sense of sadness that little progress seems to have been made. Still, and despite that problematic third act, Top Girls remains timely and relevant. It is a reminder that we can and must do better.
Runtime: Two hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions.
Top Girls runs thru December 2 at Keegan Theatre - 1742 Church St NW, Washington, DC 20036. For tickets please call (202) 265-3767 or click here.
Photo: Jessica Lefkow. Credit: Cameron Whitman Photography.