July 18, 2018

College Classmates Meet for a Reunion in “Uncommon Women and Others”; Princeton Summer Theater Offers Strong Production of Wasserstein Play

“UNCOMMON WOMEN AND OTHERS”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Uncommon Women and Others.” Directed by Daniel Krane, the play runs through July 22 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Mrs. Plumm (Carol Lee, center) serves tea to residents of North Stimson Hall, from left: Rita (Allison Spann), Kate (Kat Giordano), Susie (E Harper Nora Jerimijenko-Conley), and Leilah  (Michelle Navis). Photo by Sarah Golobish.

By Donald Sanborn III

Princeton Summer Theater is delivering a polished production of Uncommon Women and Others at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. A press release for this season’s previous production, Tick, Tick…Boom!, states that it “sets the stage for a summer of performances that center around self-discovery as seen through critical turning points in our characters’ lives.” That theme — as well as pressure to succeed with personal and professional accomplishments by the time one reaches a certain age — is shared by this play, which was written by Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006).

Both Tick, Tick…Boom! and Uncommon Women and Others represent an early point in the careers of their playwrights. Wasserstein’s play was first produced at Yale University in 1975, as her master’s thesis. Following its initial production at Yale, Uncommon Women and Others premiered off-Broadway in 1977; it was revived off-Broadway in 1994.

“It actually started because my friend [playwright Christopher] Durang … suggested it to me,” Wasserstein says in a 1993 interview. “He said, ‘You know, you should write about your college remembrances.’ I wanted to write an all-women’s play.”

The bittersweet comedy’s focus on a circle of female friends was a factor in its selection. Uncommon Women and Others “follows a group of graduates from Mount Holyoke College [Wasserstein’s undergraduate alma mater] at the dawn of second-wave feminism as they make new friendships, fall in and out of love, and imagine a brighter future for themselves,” Princeton Summer Theater remarks in a press release. “This narrative fits into a larger effort that … seeks not only to explore self-discovery but also to uplift the voices of women.”

“Wasserstein painted an indelible snapshot of what the mid-1970s were for many young women: a whirlwind of new opportunities; a shifting and uncertain political landscape around the position of women in American society; and … heavy pressures, both internal and external, as to how women should structure their lives both professionally and personally,” director Daniel Krane adds in his program notes.

Aided by Jeffrey Van Velsor’s scenery, Krane’s staging emphasizes the play’s exploration of a tightly-knit on-campus community. A half-circle of august columns flanks a stately set of tables and seats. This central area doubles as a restaurant in 1978 for the opening and closing scenes, in which some of the former classmates meet for a reunion; and Mount Holyoke College — six years earlier — for the remainder of the play. Off to one side is a desk belonging to Carter, a writer.

Carter begins the play by repeating the phrase “uncommon women” with more than a trace of skepticism in her voice. She and the other women regard each other uneasily for much of the play, particularly in the first act. As Carter, Chamari White-Mink is adept at conveying a wide range of emotions through subtle body language, particularly the use of facial expressions. One of the most satisfying character developments to watch is Carter’s gradual inclusion in the circle of friends.

The women who are present at the reunion include Kate, whose ambition is to become a lawyer; Holly, who faces interminable pressure from her parents to lose weight; Samantha, who is willing to settle for a traditional marriage; Muffet, who is undecided as to her preference for an independent professional life or a relationship; and Rita, a free spirit who wishes neither for dependence on a man, nor a professional life in which she would be a facsimile of an ambitious man.

A cue for a transition between the reunion and a flashback to six years earlier — when the women were at Mount Holyoke — comes in the form of a speech in which Mrs. Plumm, the housemother of North Stimson Hall, welcomes the students to tea. “The tea fund was established by Lucy Valerie Bingsbee, class of 1906,” she states, adding, “I knew Lucy. I never cared for her much. I hope you all have a good year.”

Carol Lee brings an air of tacit authority and dignified reserve to the role of Mrs. Plumm. She is particularly amusing in a graduation sequence; after each graduate announces their future plans, Mrs. Plumm answers “Good luck, dear” in a variety of tones of voice, subtly but clearly conveying her opinion regarding the feasibility of each stated goal.

Classmates not at the reunion, but whom we meet in the scenes set in the past, include Carter; Leilah, whose friendship with Kate is complicated; and the aptly named Susie Friend, who organizes the house parties and events such as Father-Daughter Weekend.

Allison Spann brings exuberance to the feisty Rita, and E Harper Nora Jeremijenko-Conley is sprightly as the gregarious Susie. Maeve Brady stands out with her poignant delivery of a monologue in which Holly, through a phone conversation, describes her classmates and reveals her anxieties.

Kat Giordano as Kate; Michelle Navis as Leilah; Lydia Watt as Samantha; and Rebecca Wei Hsieh as Muffet, bring everything that is required to ensure that their characters have a distinctive voice. C. Luke Soucy and Hannah Semmelhack are suitably unctuous in prerecorded segments describing the high standards the college expects its graduates to meet.

The elegant costumes by Keating Helfrich evoke the time period and reflect the characters. Susie’s checkered skirt contrasts with Carter’s dark one. Kate’s bright red jacket and skirt complement Mrs. Plumm’s delicate outfit and necklace. The color palette, which largely consists of varying shades of red and white, echoes Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set. Megan Berry’s lighting underscores the transitions between past and present.

It is helpful that the program offers a glossary explaining the dialogue’s period-specific cultural references, many of which might confuse younger audience members. However, these references are crucial because they clearly have played a role — good and bad — in making these women who they are. One of the concepts Wasserstein probes is the extent to which films and literature set personal — and societal — expectations.

In developing her characters, Wasserstein lets diverse and opposing personality types bounce off of each other. In Princeton Summer Theater’s production, the multilayered script is well served by a versatile cast with a strong rapport between its members.

“Uncommon Women and Others” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through July 22. For tickets, show times, and information call (732) 997-0205 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org/uncommonwomen.