Women must wait in pain for a definition of beauty

January 02, 1996|By Susan Reimer

THOSE OF us who came of age when the age was Aquarius believed that beauty was in your soul or your politics. It certainly was not in your cheekbones or your breasts.

Once we believed that anything more than blush and lip gloss constituted self-mutilation.

Now our bodies are overrun by time and gravity and a metabolism that has slowed to a crawl, and our ears perk when other women discuss things like tummy tucks, lip waxing, vein stripping, skin peeling and face lifts.

The beauty we see slipping away from us has always been a trap into which women are herded, often willingly, by men and by the complicity of other women.

And pain has always waited for women there: From the scratch of a mascara wand on the cornea to the genital mutilation of young girls.

Playwright Lisa Loomer tackles the pain of beauty in her play "The Waiting Room," being performed at Arena Stage in Washington through the end of this month.

It is a dark comedy about three women from three different centuries and three different cultures who meet in a doctor's waiting room -- the closest thing to purgatory this side of the River Styx.

They are: Victoria, a 19th-century corseted woman whose physician husband wants her to have her ovaries removed as a cure for "hysteria"; Forgiveness from Heaven, an 18th-century Chinese woman whose bound feet -- a source of erotic pleasure for her husband -- are rotting off; and Wanda, a 20th-century gum-cracking secretary from "Jersey," who learns that her silicone implants have obscured aggressive breast cancer.

As the women tell their stories and try to heal themselves, they become tangled in a subplot involving the FDA, a pharmaceutical company and a research hospital.

Though a digression, this subplot illustrates the country's health-care crisis, particularly as it relates to women and to cancer research, more clearly than anything Hillary Rodham Clinton was able to stage.

"The Waiting Room" is political. It is feminist. It is anti-doctor, anti-male, anti-government. It is about three women trapped somewhere between a subjective culture of beauty and an objectifying, and male, medical establishment.

Wanda has had head-to-toe plastic surgery in order to win a bet with her mother that she could land a husband before she was 40. But her efforts have obscured her cancer and doctors will not help her get alternative treatments.

Forgiveness from Heaven could barely walk, but now her tiny feet cannot keep her husband's attention away from his younger wives. She has lost his affection and now she will lose her feet.

Victoria brags about her 16-inch waist, but her corset cannot contain the anger and frustration she feels toward the husband who tells her that reading books has unbalanced her hormones and made her crazy.

And when the cool and distant surgeon in whose office they wait discovers that he, too, has cancer, the play is turned on its head. The desperate helplessness of the man the women counted on to save them leaves the women to save themselves.

This synopsis obscures one other aspect of "The Waiting Room." It is very funny -- if you don't mind flinching when you laugh. Lisa Loomer's humor stings and burns like the first drops of chemotherapy in Wanda's arm. But the playwright, who drew on what she learned as her mother succumbed to breast cancer, balances lessons and laughter as evenly as she balances plot and polemics.

The women become friends, and the beauty of their friendship is what it reveals about the nature of beauty. Forgiveness from Heaven is losing her toes like petals from a dying flower. Victoria's internal organs have been compressed and rearranged by her corset. Each woman finds the other barbaric, but each has bound some part of herself to please her husband and has killed it off as a result.

There is nothing real or original about Wanda -- except the part of her that is fiercely determined to survive, the part that is loving and protective of her two new friends.

In the play, the women move from the waiting room to the recovery room.

Victoria leaves first. Her daughter is showing the first signs of "hysteria," and Victoria must help her. She asks Wanda to wait for her -- in the waiting room.

We are all waiting in Lisa Loomer's waiting room, I think. For the medical establishment to get its hands out of each other's pockets long enough to cure the disease women fear so much: breast cancer. For men -- and women -- to find some definition of beauty we can all live with.

Bring a book or pick up a magazine. We may be waiting for a very long time.

vTC

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