insightful in-depth reviews

6, Mar 2016
Karina Balfour, Rebecca Joy, Melanie Julian, Sam Price; photo by Dave Sarrafian

The Women: a serious critique

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

The Women. By Clare Boothe Luce. Lane Savadove directed. EgoPo Classic Theater.


Clare Boothe Luce’s groundbreaking 1936 all-female play called attention to the obstacles women faced. The Women was billed as a comedy and the 1939 movie version was so superficial that it’s hard to watch. But director Lane Savadove’s EgoPo production sees The Women as a dark look at the place of women in society at that time—even the very rich ones.

Some recent critics have called the play a distasteful portrayal of what women are. To the contrary, this is a smart woman’s protest about how things were.

When Clare Boothe was 7 her father abandoned his family. As an adolescent she campaigned for equal rights. She married a very rich man who was an alcoholic, and left him. Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines, got a divorce from his wife in order to marry her in 1935 and then she became a playwright, and later a politician. A Harper‘s cover story was entitled ”Clare Boothe Luce: From Courtesan to Career Woman.”

Her biographer, Sylvia Jukes Morris, visited the Greenbriar Hotel in West Virginia and confirmed that Clare’s scheming mother had taken her there in 1919, hoping the dazzling 16-year-old would ensnare the Prince of Wales. Clare admitted to Morris that Mr. Luce had ”wandered off the reservation” early in their marriage, yet she allowed the relationship to endure. Thus this play is partly autobiographical.

The central character is Mary Haines (played warmly and sympathetically by Melanie Julian) whose husband has an affair, yet she allows the marriage to continue until the talk of her gossipy friends makes that impossible. She goes to Reno for a divorce, as women did in those days because the rules there were so permissive, then regrets it.

The character closest to Luce is a tart writer and traveler (Karina Balfour); the nastiest is the meddling friend Sylvia (Mary Lee Bednarek); Edith (Geneviéve Perrier) is continually pregnant; Peggy (Lee Minora) is upset about lacking money to afford what she’d like; Countesse de Lage (Rebecca Joy) is a riot as a blunt-talking woman who marries five times; Mary’s mother, Mrs. Morehead (Cheryl Williams) gives her daughter practical advice; Crystal (Colleen Murphy) is a department store salesgirl who breaks up marriages.

Mary’s daughter (Courtney Bundens) has a small role but is given a striking silent minute at the top of the show where she experiences her first period. At the end, she’s about to enter womanhood, having learned some hard lessons by observation. The production seems to have a large number of players, but we must note that the original production had no less than 40 all-female actors.

Playwright Luce was presenting a wide variety of women who all faced handicaps despite their affluence, women who lacked the options available to men. The male point of view was intentionally ignored; no men appear.

Savadove’s direction exposed that traditional marriage in those days was a capitalist system of purchase, of a man saying, “You give me your body and in exchange I’ll give you a ring and my wealth.” A woman’s body was turned into an asset, which by definition would depreciate, leading to a “trading in” for a younger, newer model. This powerlessness led to the desperate actions of some of the women in this play.

When Luce’s script avers that what women wanted from men was “babies and security” it was her observation of reality at that time, not her advocacy of what women should want.

I disagree with the hawkish, right-wing politics of Luce’s later years, but I admire what she did in this play, exposing disagreeable problems while adding laughter as icing on top, to make her drama popular enough to bring attention to her issues.

(This was a co-production with Rowan University, where Savadove heads the theater department, and several Rowan students were in the cast.)

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