Set in the teacher’s sitting room at Malyn Park, a Protestant all-girls’ boarding school somewhere in Ireland, Women Without Men begins on the first day of the new term. Idealistic, young Jean Wade, the new History and English staff member, looks forward to teaching and getting to know her colleagues. However, she is immediately submerged in the petty jealousies, bickering, disappointments and frustrations of a faculty that has no real calling for teaching or living in close quarters with other women.
Spirited, vivacious Ruby Ridgeway tries to make the other teachers jealous of her popularity among the girls. Miss Connor feels superior to the others as she is almost finished with her book on the history of beautiful acts throughout the ages after 20 years and is sure that the others will not be able to read it. Miss Willoughby (Math and Latin) is one of those complainers who always find something not to her liking. And Mademoiselle Vernier, the French teacher, never ceases to remind the others of her aristocratic upbringing.
Only Miss Strong (Mathematics and Latin), like her name, is level-headed and sober and remains everyone’s friend by staying out of the squabbling. When the novice Jean remarks that she is glad she is starting her career in a small school, Miss Strong warns her that “small schools are the worst.” When things go sour for Jean, the veteran sums up such an environment as “Women brought together not by choice, not by liking but by the necessity of earning our living. No outside interests, no outside friends, nothing to talk about but the pettifogging details of the school and all that herein is.”
On the first day, Jean unknowingly crosses Miss Connor when she rejects her offer of help and makes a deadly enemy of her. Tensions continue to rise as the term progresses. When Miss Connor’s manuscript is torn up, she accuses Jean even though there is almost no evidence to connect her with the crime. As a result, Jean has to live out the rest of the term with the accusation hanging over her head. However, unlike the other women, she has an escape plan: she is engaged to Jack and just has to set a date. Her dreams of a career may be in ruins but she has another route not open to the other teachers.
The feminists may object to the title which implies that the cause of these women’s unhappiness is that they must live without men. However, other authors have dramatized situations in convents and offices where a same-sex environment can turn pernicious. Just like the convent’s cloister, the teacher’s sitting room at Malyn Park is claustrophobic and every small injury to one’s pride becomes blown out of proportion. Other dramatists have depicted the suffocating air of the teaching profession in such plays as Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, and Simon Gray’s Butley and Quartermaine’s Terms. And let us not forget the repressive atmosphere in both the dramatic and musical versions of Spring Awakening. On the other hand, the title may simply be a back-handed reference to Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 Men without Women, which depicted men at war and hunting, at that time all-male preserves.
Thompson’s direction is taut, nuanced and compelling and she found the ensemble to not only make their characters entirely distinct but to make us feel these women have lived together for years. Emily Walton is charming as the idealistic Jean who comes to feel that there is no place for her in such a poisonous environment. As her nemesis Miss Connor, Kellie Overbey is sympathetic as a woman who feels that life has given her a poor hand but that her writing makes it all worthwhile. Mary Bacon is a tower of strength as the stalwart Miss Strong who after 18 years refuses to be pulled into the petty wrangling as her way of survival.
Among the more eccentric, colorful characters, Kate Middleton is amusing as the self-dramatizing Miss Ridgeway. Dee Pelletier is French down to her bones as Mademoiselle Vernier. Aedin Moloney is very successful at making us quickly despise Miss Willoughby who is always looking for slights where there aren’t any. In smaller roles, Joyce Cohen is all starchy efficiency as the headmistress Mrs. Newcome, while Amelia White is extremely warm and motherly as Matron, aka Mrs. Hubbert. Beatrice Tulchin, Shannon Harrington and Alexa Shae Niziak put in appearances as a range of three students from impudent to well-behaved.
After having been on 43rd Street for 20 years, the Mint has had to leave its former home when its lease was not renewed. Its temporary home at New York City Center – Stage II is a perfect location for Women Without Men. Vicki R. Davis makes use of the higher ceiling for the wood-paneled, book-lined, snug but shabby teacher’s room. The wonderfully realistic set has been built on two adjoining walls which fools the eye into thinking that it continues out into the audience. Martha Hally’s costumes are perfectly suited for women who must make a daily impression but on a small budget. The lighting by Traci Klainer Polimeni creates the cozy feeling of a library atmosphere. Amy Stoller is responsible for the consistent dialects for the different women.
Although the Mint Theater Company is currently homeless, never fear. Their first play away from 43rd Street is the remarkable rediscovery Women Without Men which introduces Irish author Hazel Ellis to America. Jenn Thompson’s production features a brilliant ensemble cast which makes this engrossing, riveting theater. The production of this fascinating workplace drama could not be better.
Women without Men (through March 26, 2016)
Mint Theater Company
New York City Center, Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.minttheater.org
Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission