By Jordan Wright
“Blue Stockings” harkens back to the late 19th century at Cambridge University at a time when women wore bloomers and didn’t have the right to vote or earn graduate degrees from the college. The term ‘blue stockings’ was a derogatory reference to a woman with literary or intellectual interests. No wonder the popularity of writers like Virginia Woolf and the Jazz Age hit the scene a mere two decades later, though it should be noted that King’s College in London had a “Ladies Department” in 1897 when Woolf attended.
Jessica Swale’s play is based on the true story of Elizabeth Welsh, the mistress of Girton College, and Dr. Maudsley, the renowned male psychiatrist. Welsh is leading the charge to graduate a small but brilliant incoming class of young women of differing socio-economic backgrounds and fields of study. Dr. Maudsley espouses cock-eyed Victorian notions of women’s unsuitability to the rigors of higher learning, attributing hysteria to the female body – he calls it the “wandering womb” – the destruction of natural maternal instincts, their inability to land a future husband and other antiquated notions.
“Degrees for women are a dangerous idea,” Maudsley proposes. Hiss! Boo!
Under this aggressive male pressure, the ladies are subjugated at every turn. Treated as a curiosity, they are chaperoned, cosseted and degraded by the male students until they join forces in solidarity with the women’s movement to gain the right to vote. Funny how assertiveness works to the women’s advantage.
In the Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production, director Marzanne Claiborne pulls together a brilliant cast that really clicks, affording us a tightly woven production that encompasses both drama and relevance. Urged by the sympathetic professor Mr. Banks (splendidly portrayed by Paul Donahoe) for the men to explore their passions, the flirtatious Ralph Mayhew (Michael Townsend) gives a hilarious delivery of an Italian love poem to aspiring student Tess Moffat (Madeline Byrd). Byrd is the glue that drives this play ever forward. Both her comedic timing and her intensity are spot on, and she is tremendously engaging as the striving student whose character is flawed but brave, whose heart is broken but rallies in her ardent quest for education.
Other notable performances are crafted by Robert Heinly as Dr. Maudsley whose evil intentions are reminiscent of Snidely Whiplash; John Paul Odle as Will Bennett, the well-intentioned brother of Tess; Melissa Dunlap as fellow student Celia Willbound; Tegan Cohen as sophisticate Carolyn Addison; and Ilyana Rose-Dávila as Maeve Sullivan, a girl from a poor family who struggles to keep her spot at the school when summoned home to care for her orphaned brothers and sisters.
There are 13 scenes in Act I alone – 12 in Act II. It seems like an improbable challenge to pull off, but pull it off they do with smooth transitions, musical interstices and a variety of set changes that place the characters in a typical dorm room, a classroom, the outdoors, the headmistress’ office and other settings typical of campus life with the backdrop of the college’s ivied towers.
“Blue Stockings” is produced by Lloyd Bittinger, Margaret Chapman and Christine Farrell. Hilary Adams serves as assistant director; period costume design is by Joan Davis; Italian dialog coaching is by Dominica Marchetti; lighting is by Franklin Coleman and set design is by Charles Dragonette.
Additional cast members include: Liz LeBoo as Elizabeth Welsh; Ali Cheraghpour as Mr. Banks; James Blacker as Lloyd; Michael King as Holmes; Elizabeth Repogle as Miss Blake; Anne Hilleary as Miss Bott/Mrs. Lindley; Joel Durgavich as Librarian/ Professor Anderson; Hilary Adams asKhalia Muhammad as Minnie; Michael Rufo as Billy Sullivan; Will Cooke as Professor Radleigh; Robert Heinly as Dr. Maudsley/ Professor Collins and Manus Nunan as Mr. Peck/Waiter.
This is a fine piece of theater from LTA and one I can most assuredly state is worthy of appreciation and highly recommended.
“Blue Stockings” runs through March 19 at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria 22314. For tickets and information call 703 683-5778 or visit www.TheLittleTheatre.com.