This 'Yellow Wallpaper' strips away scariness

February 05, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

When Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a turn-of-the-century feminist writer, wrote her semi-autobiographical short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," she intended it in part as a cautionary tale. A patient of famed neurologist Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, Gilman wanted to issue a warning about the dangers of the type of rest cure he prescribed for certain mental illnesses.

And indeed, the story is spooky enough to have earned a place in the genres of science fiction and horror, as well as feminist literature. But despite the creepy tone of the original, New Century Theater's respectful dramatization -- currently at the Theatre Project as part of its local residency program -- never quite gets under your skin and makes it crawl.

This is regrettable since these conditions are precisely what befall the protagonist, identified in the program merely as "The Wife." A young mother dismayed to find herself lacking maternal instincts, she is sent to the country to recuperate from "temporary nervous depression" -- or, more accurately, to conform to the narrow definition of motherhood held by her doctor husband and doctor brother.

Although Gilman's story is written in first person and focuses so intensely on that voice that other characters are peripheral, New Century's adaptation, by Laura Hackman and Mark Redfield, employs a cast of four. Besides the wife -- played with admirable understatement by Jacqueline Underwood -- there is her husband (Redfield), brother (Brian P. Chetelat) and her husband's sister (Renee Clements), a subservient young woman whose greatest joy is waiting on others.

But despite adding characters, the playwrights have not totally succeeded in making this material dramatic. Besides a reliance on voiceovers, they have interpolated a series of fairly static epistolary scenes in which the two doctors read their correspondence concerning the wife's treatment.

"Too much development of the brain will atrophy the uterus," her brother writes at one point, quoting Dr. Mitchell. This is loaded material and, at its best, New Century's adaptation reminds you of exchanges between Nora and Torvald in Ibsen's "A Doll's House." But Hackman, who also directed the 90-minute piece, frequently lets the tone drift toward melodrama.

When Redfield's mustachioed husband endearingly delivers a line such as, "Let me do the thinking," it's surprising the audience doesn't hiss. And the intent is far too obvious when, near the end, he removes the brain from an anatomical model of a woman situated on one side of the stage.

But back to the notion of getting under your skin. The title of the work derives from the fact that the paternalistic, chauvinistic husband is so sure he knows what's best for his wife, he won't even let her stay in the room she prefers in their rented country house. Instead, he confines her to a room whose ugly peeling wallpaper quickly begins to haunt her. Not only does she feel trapped in front of the wallpaper, she becomes convinced she sees the figure of a woman trapped behind it.

In Gilman's story, the ending is as twisted as O'Henry and as scary as Poe. However, this production lessens that effect by actually showing us the illusory figure at one point and, in a more NTC serious miscalculation, giving the final moment to the husband, who faints at the discovery of the true severity of his wife's condition.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is not only a heck of a good yarn, it's an important early example of feminist writing. It's also a difficult piece to rework for the stage. New Century's attempt is laudatory, but it's not quite there yet. After all, this is one work about which you should never have to ask: Whose story is it anyway?


Note: Impossible Industrial Action's production of Edward Albee's "The American Dream," an earlier production in the Theatre Project's local residency program, will have two return performances, at 8:30 tonight and tomorrow at the Baltimore School for the Arts, 712 Cathedral St. Tickets are $8. Call (410) 547-8533.

"The Yellow Wallpaper"

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 14.

Tickets: $14.

Call: (410) 752-8558.

** 1/2

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