Review: Colonial Players' 'Mrs. California' lacks feminist zing

Play set in '50s shows stagnant postwar role of women

May 22, 2010|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

For its next-to-last show of the 2009-2010 season, Colonial Players is presenting Doris Baizley's "Mrs. California," which depicts a televised contest of 1950s homemaking skills. Although the play is a better choice than the previously scheduled "Kitchen Witches," it lacks the substance of CP's first five shows of the season.

Baizley, who wrote the play in 1986, sets the action in 1955, a decade after millions of veterans had returned to their careers and their wives had left their wartime jobs for full-time home and family care duties.

Influenced by her WAVE mother, who returned to being a housewife after serving in the wartime military, Baizely explores how women were encouraged to redirect their energies toward housekeeping after the war. She traces the experiences of Mrs. Los Angeles, Mrs. Modesto, Mrs. San Bernardino and Mrs. San Francisco as they compete in cooking, ironing and sewing contests to win the "Mrs. California" title.

Sometimes described as "a writer of feminist plays," Baizley gives no hint here of any nascent feminist striving for liberation or equality. Instead, she merely suggests the need for independence in two characters who served vital roles during World War II and, a decade later, were expected to be content as housekeepers.

Three of the four contestants are eager to display their superior skills in the traditional roles they embrace, roles championed by the period media. When Mrs. California contestants are asked to describe their proudest moments, it is unclear whether we are expected to consider only their motivations without ranking their actual achievements.

Directing the production is Judi Wobensmith, who has helmed numerous plays over a 40-year career in the Annapolis/Washington area. In "Mrs. California," she keeps the contest action moving smoothly and does what she can to help the actors enliven their characters.

The theater features an authentic-looking simulation of a 1950s-era TV studio set, brilliantly designed by Doug Dawson with assistance from Dick Whaley. They created four working stations that transform from a dining table to a cooking area with operational kitchen stove and refrigerator, to an ironing board with working plug-in steam iron and a functioning sewing machine. This engineering marvel not only works perfectly, but even sparks on cue.

Also noteworthy is the television studio rear space for the consultant, announcer and judges who view the studio proceedings.

For their contributions to the production's authenticity, praise is also due properties designer Lois Banscher and costume designer Jeannie Beall.

As great as the sets are, I can summon only limited enthusiasm for the various contests taking place on them.

Among the actors, Pam Peach (Dot/Mrs. Los Angeles) looks at home in her cinched-waist, crinoline-skirted 1950s costumes while making the most of her multi-dimensional role. She inhabits her character, once a wartime message decoder who saved American ships from attack with her quick thinking and who now follows the orders of her current mentor and gas company sponsor. Peach's Dot cheerfully excels at the contest chores, but she cannot rank them her proudest moment, delivering a climactic speech that recognizes her predecessors' fight for equality and her own wartime accomplishments.

Another strong woman who worked as a wartime electrician is Dot's neighbor and friend, Babs (Erin Leigh Casey), who encourages her to compete. Casey plays Babs with sass to bring comic life to the competition.

Karen Lambert injects some humor and winning naturalness into the role of Mrs. Modesto. First appearing in a clown wig, Lambert's Mrs. Modesto looks comfortable in her rather frumpy costumes and conveys a firm belief in her values.

As Mrs. San Bernardino, Monica Anselm seems most adept at performing each housekeeping chore, from setting a table to ironing a shirt to sewing an apron. She also projects a high level of competitiveness and wears her vintage costumes with flair.

Jane Elkin plays the soft-spoken Mrs. San Francisco, a social-climbing, superficial Francophile of little discernible warmth.

Erik Alexis is convincingly sexist as Dudley, and Danny Brooks is believable as the television emcee and stage manager. Rounding out the cast are Kathryn Huston as Mrs. California 1954 and Timothy Sayles as contest judge Carlton Sims.

If you go

"Mrs. California" continues at Colonial Players on Thursday, May 27, through Saturday, May 29. Tickets: 410-268-7373.

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