Brilliantly written and using historical documents and transcripts, Jessica Bashline’s Wickedest Woman tells a fascinating but true story. It has been given a riveting, cinematic production by Strange Sun Theater Company directed by Melissa Crespo at WP Theater. Based entirely on the facts of the case, the play is an indictment of medical, social and political hypocrisy in 19th century New York City with Ann having crossed important and powerful financial interests. The relevance for our own time is remarkable. One feels like shouting out, “Here we go once again!” as the real needs of people are discounted for imaginary moral and ethical concerns by the powers that be.
Six actors, three men and three women, in a company of seven, play many roles in this fluid production designed by Anna Driftmier that uses several different doorways, on-stage props and furniture that is rolled out swiftly to tell Ann’s story from age 16 in 1828 to her untimely death at 66 in 1878. Jessica O’Hara-Baker is a towering Ann Lohman, aka Madame Restell, level-headed, goal-directed yet humorless as she sees a need and methodically goes about taking care of it, caring little for the mores of times or proscribed women’s roles. Narrated by Ann and including newspaper headlines read by the other cast members as well as period songs of 19th century ballads sung and played by the company, Wickedest Woman begins with her 1848 trial which is interrupted repeatedly in order to tell the story in chronological order.
Growing up in England in a family of ten children, Ann escapes at 16 to marry tailor Harry Sommers and convinces him to move to New York where there is greater opportunity. When he dies of typhoid four months after their arrival, Ann has to fend for herself and little daughter Caroline. She discovers that her local pharmacist needs a woman to deal with female complaints and convinces him to hire as well as teach her the business. She meets a sympathetic Russian–born typesetter Charles Lohman who she marries and he adopts her daughter as his own.
The ambitious Charles suggests they go out on their own and set up a clinic to handle laying-ins for pregnant women, abortions and the distribution of powders and pills. When her tremendous success leads to many copycats who are not as careful about hygiene and medical procedures, she is first accused of the murder of a pregnant woman found floating in the river, and later of an illegal abortion of a woman who claims she was more than four months, the legal limit. Arrested on the charge of murder, Ann’s troubles are only beginning as public opinion turns against her and her business.
Crespo’s staging which uses songs and newspaper headlines to cover scene changes is both ingenious and clever. However, the production is somewhat ham-fisted by the author’s requirement to have male actors play female characters and vice versa and to have the cast reflect the diversity of NYC in the 1800’s as well as today. As the actors playing the opposite gender are so obviously disguised, it becomes difficult to know who is who.
When Ann speaks with her pharmacist (obviously played by a woman) it is not clear that Evans is a man until she addresses “him” as John. Since we have already been told that the police are looking to prosecute her, when women appear at her clinic obviously played by men, one keeps expecting them to turn out to be undercover police attempting to entrap her. (In fact, female reporters did just this but the play does not mention this.) Although the diversity casting is never mentioned for 1828, it is something which would not have gone unnoticed in that time period.
O’Hara-Baker is always commanding as a woman who knows her own mind and marches to her own drummer. As her first husband, Evan Daves is weak but sympathetic. Jose-Maria Aguila as her second husband, the Russian Charles, is very forceful but with an indeterminate accent. Emily Gardner Xu Hall is effective as both the cynical Innkeeper and later her conflicted daughter Caroline. Playing an assortment of roles each, the other actors are more notable in one role or the other: Dawn McGee as the meek Mary Bodine used by the authorities to bring Ann to trial, Luke Zimmerman as the fiery District Attorney, Jasmin Walker as Ann’s assistant nurse Betty. Emily White’s simple period costume design allows for the actors to play up to seven roles each. The lighting design by Christina Watanabe is effective except where shadows of the actors appear behind scrims which is not at first obviously a backstage mistake.
Jessica Bashline’s Wickedest Woman is one of those forgotten stories of a heroic woman ahead of her time. With a script that is historically true both in spirit and in its writing, it is a compelling and gripping story of one woman’s struggle against the status quo to do what needed to be done. In a condemnation of the hypocrisy of an earlier era, we find that servant women turn up at Ann’s clinic made pregnant by their bosses, paid to get rid of the children as quickly as possible. The swiftly moving production directed by Melissa Crespo should be of interest to both men and women who are likely to find the story a surprising revelation of life in 19th century America that one assumes was a more innocent time. Jessica O’Hara-Baker in the leading role is always impressive and authoritative as a pioneer for women’s rights long before other women took up the cause.
Wickedest Woman (through February 2, 2019)
Strange Sun Theater
WP Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 77th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.wickedestwomantheplay.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission