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Poignant Tapestry of Voices

THEATER

Voices

by Susan Griffin

directed by Jeanne Smoot

at the Loeb Experimental Theater

Voices, written by Susan Griffin and directed by Jeanne Smoot, presents the lives of five contemporary women, each attempting to understand the course of her life. Maya (Leslie Yahia), Kate (Jeanne Smoot), Erin (Angela Delichatsios), Rosalinde (Emily Gardiner) and Grace (Erin Scott) have had very different lives: they are, respectively, a divorced mother writing her Ph.D. thesis, a retired actress, a patient in a mental hospital, a mother mourning the loss of her children to their adult lives and a new-age hippie.

Each character is spotlighted from above while she speaks. The other women remain in darkness, reading, drawing or sewing. Over the course of the play each woman tells her life story, or at least parts of it. Instead of listening to one monologue in its entirety, then moving on to the next, the parts are segmented. Each character tells about a particular stage in her life, then, at the moment of completion, the narrative is passed to the next character, who then tells of her experiences during that same developmental period.

After each woman has spoken two or three times, the viewer realizes that there are numerous common threads in their experiences. Maya's office looks like the nightmare mess your first-year roommate left behind. Her life seems to resemble the chaos of her office. Frenetically trying to clean up, she tells us of her parents' activities in the Communist party. She says, "my father's life has a label," one for which she is clearly still looking. Later, Kate sits in an elegant chair beside a reading table with a single iris in a crystal vase. She speaks in measured and reserved tones, yet when she remembers becoming involved the theatre in Paris, she says, still enthralled by what she found there, "It was the first passion I'd seen except for religion." Suddenly their parallel searches for autonomy and self-definition leap into view.

Other segments of monologue introduce us to the women's parents, their first lovers, or their realizations of independence. The initially bland facades of each woman fall away. Every one of them has had her secrets. Grace, the menopausal housewife who is lost without her children, turns out to have been a literature student, a poet and her professor's mistress. Each woman ends her coming of age story by telling of the rift with her parents. Each woman in turn states, "I had no place to go." We see that coming into one's own necessarily involves being alone. In fact, the first act ends with the actresses joining in unison, "I was alone."

Somehow the viewer no longer sees the individual characters as being entirely alone. The commonalities in their experiences tie them together, even though they never formally address each other. The second half of the play focuses on their marriages or lovers, and their quest for roots or a place to call home. The interactions between their individual stories ask, "What are our rites of passage?"; "How important is the past in your life?"; "Can you really assign blame for anything in your life?" Each woman fights for her freedom and her survival. Each them talks about the difficulty of distinguishing her own voices from the chaos or confusion around them. The final effect is a powerful confrontation between the expectations and hopes one has for one's life and the realities in which one lives. The play gives shape to a female consciousness rooted in common psychological experience.

For the most part the actresses deliver their characters passionately and believably. Occasionally, it seemed that one was watching the actress and not her character--in other words, that each woman was playing a thinly disguised version of herself. Jeanne Smoot and Erin Scott sometimes seemed stilted as they attempted to appear matronly. Leslie Yahia was too hyperactive to be convincing as an angry and burnt out single mother. All of the women were far more real when they were delivering comic lines than when trying to confront serious issues in their characters' lives.

This was particularly true for Angela Delichatsios. Delichatsios's character is insane, the victim of a broken home, a mad mother, and a suicidal twin brother who had also been her lover. To be fair, her lines are among the most melodramatic and self-conscious in the play. She has the farthest stretch to make in constructing a core of believability around her character. However, her attempts to build a character who is simultaneously out of touch with reality but also accessible to the audience's experiences break down quickly. Delichatsios pulls at her pajama-like clothing to indicate nervousness. She speaks in a stilted and unnatural monotone. Her eyes stare at one object, then dart to another. While she is supposed to be withdrawn, her body language is confrontational. She fails to represent realistically her character's psychological profile.

But at the end of the play it is Delichatsios' Erin who pulls all of the characters together. She begins to speak about her simultaneous desire for and fear of death. The other characters join in, alternating lines instead of paragraphs. The lights are raised over all of them. Instead of posing in darkness, the women freeze in place when another character takes over the narration. Here the unity between their lives is best demonstrated. Maya says, "I do what is necessary...it is not true that I never cry." Grace admits to herself, "I did not know how strong I was." All of these women have struggled to achieve the identities they now have. Even Erin hints that she may return from the abyss to the living.

Joining in a circle, the women assume a new course of narrative. The play ventures still further into abstraction. The woman assume poses and recount the experiences of women Pilgrims, slaves, or pioneers. Finally, the universality of women's struggle for individual and group pride culminates. The play concludes with all the women clasping hands. Facing the audience they repeat, "What held me like a magnet was death, what actually called to me was life."

For this production, the stage at the Ex was set in the middle of the room at floor level, with risers with plastic chairs surrounding the `stage' on three sides. The stage was set in fifths, decorated only with the furniture necessary to convey each woman's room or environment. No walls partition the characters' domains from one another. The position of the stage below the audience, as well as the lack of physical separation between actors, ultimately adds to the play's effectiveness in addressing its viewers' own lives.

Although there were points where the actresses became too self conscious in talking about their characters' lives to be "real," the overall effect was very funny, often poignant, and definitely successful in forging a tapestry of women's voices.

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