Theatre Review: “The Housewives of Mannheim” at the Phoenix

"The Housewives of Mannheim" - rehearsal photo by Julie Curry

Last Friday night I drove to downtown Indianapolis to see “The Housewives of Mannheim” at the Phoenix Theatre.  It was written by Alan Brody, produced by Bryan Fonseca and directed by SuzAnne Barabas.  SuzAnne also directed this 1995 play last year for the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, New Jersey, where she serves as Artistic Director.

It is a beautiful, beautiful piece.   The first act is funny and Lord-have-mercy steamy whereas the second act is sort of earnest and more openly agenda-driven, with a resolution that happens a little too abruptly and neatly for my taste.  However, ultimately I didn’t mind the play’s flaws because there were so many pleasures throughout – both in the characters and the emotionally nimble actors who play them, and in the design elements of this production.  I also didn’t mind because the ending is sort of delicious and mischievous, really, in the questions it leaves unanswered.

The Story

Three young housewives live in the same apartment building in Brooklyn, New York in 1944.  They call to each other through their open windows.  They drop in on each other for coffee breaks, gossip, and comfort throughout the day.  They have known each other for years but now two of the women’s husbands are away, helping to fight World War Two.  The third woman’s husband is still here physically, but their marriage is so sad and loveless now that he might as well be away.  In any case, we never meet any of the husbands.  We only hear about them.

The absence of the men affects each of the women differently.  Prissy Alice (Wendy Peace) becomes even more firmly rooted in her routines and prejudices, resisting change of any kind.  Bawdy Billie (Allison Moody) begins to accept her true self, even though it is seen as perverted by most of society.  Good-girl-next-door May (Lauren Briggeman) is used to being valued for her classic good looks but without her man around to be her mirror, she begins to yearn for deeper understandings of the world around her.   

And then genteel Sophie (Martha Jacobs) moves in.  She is older than they are, and has a European accent that is very different from their Brooklyn accents.  She is in a wheelchair.  We learn eventually that she is a widow.  She comes quietly to May’s kitchen to borrow a screwdriver or other tool to pry open her stuck windows.  May takes to Sophie right away, seeing her as savior/teacher/wise woman.  She offers intimate friendship and declares both her trustworthiness and her trust immediately.  Sophie, understandably, resists all this, at least at first, but her presence does eventually serve as a catalyst that shakes up all three of the other women even further.

The Historical Yet Modern Themes

This play is “about” the persecution of Jews and lesbians in the 1940s but it is fascinating to see how relevant the play is to today’s world.  At one point, for example, Sophie expresses anger and frustration at May’s and all Americans’ “willful innocence” in the face of injustice and pain.   May replies, equally angry, that “I don’t have to know!  That’s what we’re fighting for!”

Even more important and interesting (to me, anyway) is the play’s exploration of timeless themes related to growth and risk, trust and betrayal, intimacy and responsibility, and war, and art, and communication.   “How can I know if you don’t tell me?” May also asks.

The Production Elements

My press release says that “The Phoenix has only produced five period pieces in the last 10 years, so Housewives, which takes place in 1944, is a real departure for the contemporary theatre.”

Maybe so, but the design team really came through.  The set – oh, the set! – designed by James Gross with props by technical director Christopher Hansen, is a special treat.  When you enter the theatre you almost have to duck under the sheet hanging from the pulley clothesline that stretches across the alley from May’s fire escape.  (Don’t worry: the sheet gets pulled in and put in a basket almost as soon as the show starts.)  The quaint stove, the fridge, the working sink, the floor model radio console, and later, the portable phonograph with the diamond needle!…all these and more evoke the time period magnificently.

Laura Glover’s communicative lighting design perfectly enhances the story as well. As Sophie coaches May in her appreciation of paintings, for example, the light in the kitchen becomes subtly more textured.  As May begins to be able to “hear the light” in the music that Sophie shares with her, the quality of the light in her home, too, becomes somehow both brighter and softer.  When May and Billie share a drink in May’s darkened kitchen after attending a “bohemian party,” the light flowing in the window from the street lamp is as seductive and dangerous as a caress.

According to my program, the sound designer, Merek Press, is the resident composer and sound designer at the New Jersey Repertory Company.  I loved the 1940s music that he chose for pre-show, intermission, and radio play in May’s kitchen.  It includes songs that set my feet to tapping, such as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”  I also admired the deft “touches” of sound during the play itself, such as the whistle of a boiling tea kettle.   

Dani Norberg, light & sound operator, precisely executes the designs during the performance.  Amanda Lyn Meyer is the stage manager, efficiently whisking away dozens of used coffee cups and abandoned aprons during the scene changes.

Karen Wittig designed the costumes, which are also delights.  All of the women wear seamed stockings.  One wears a beaded sweater that I am still coveting.   It is not as if these women are rich, but people dressed up to go to the store in the 1940s, and the costume design – complete with pumps, handbags, and little hats – reflects that care.

This isn’t a musical, but there is a dance scene.  Choreographer Esther Widlanski and the actors make the dance a falling into the forbidden that is as arousing to the audience as it is to the two women involved.

“Did you know that was going to happen?” I overheard the woman sitting behind me say to her companion.

“I swear I did not!” she replied. 

I couldn’t tell if they were glad or dismayed about the unexpected arousal.  They did come back after intermission, though, so that’s good.

The Ride Home

As I mentioned earlier, the play wrapped up a little too neatly for my taste, at least on the night I saw it.  “Wait a minute,” I wanted to say to the playwright and the director, even as I was applauding madly.  “Really?  After everything that has happened, this is how it ends?  And what about when their husbands return, assuming they do?”

The unanswered questions are good food for thought on the ride home, though, and now, after a few days’ reflection, I can see how the ending works artistically.

That said, when I tweeted briefly about this show on the night I saw it, someone from the Village Theatre Project in Boston tweeted back: “We’re giving Victory Blues, the 2nd in Alan Brody’s trilogy, a reading on Feb 22nd in Boston.” 

Alan Brody’s trilogy?

Yes.  “The Housewives of Mannheim” is the first in a trilogy of plays about World War Two.  In an interview last year for something called Red Bank Orbit, the playwright told interviewer Tom Chesek:

“Well, this play is the first in what I call the Victory Blues Trilogy — there’s this one, then all the characters are in the one called Victory Blues, where the men come home from the war. And then the latest project is called Are You Popular?  — it’s got all the characters from the second play plus three more, and it’s about what happens to these couples when they move to the suburbs.”

(See the full interview, along with several reviews of the New Jersey production from various sources, here.  Warning: you will have to scroll WAY down to get to “Housewives” articles.)

I would love to see the other two plays!

I bet you will want to see them, too, if you go to see “Housewives of Mannheim” at the Phoenix.  However, don’t worry that you probably won’t be able to see the other two plays right away, if ever.  “Housewives,” especially this production of it, is satisfying on its own.

Box Office

“The Housewives of Mannheim,” by Alan Brody, continues at the Phoenix Theatre through Saturday, February 6, 2010.  Please call 317-635-PLAY(7529) to make a reservation.

Interesting Reading: An Interview with the Director

The dramaturg for this production, J. C. Pankratz, interviewed the director, SuzAnne Barabas.  Look for it under the “Theatre Geeks” tab on the Phoenix’s website. (www.phoenixtheatre.org)

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Also follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com for brief, immediate comments on location at the theatres.

(Rehearsal photo above taken by Julie Curry.  Standing, left to right: Wendy Peace, Allison Moody.  Seated, left to right: Lauren Briggeman, Martha Jacobs.)

P. S. – The Wheelchair

I woke up this morning after posting this review late last night and realized that I wanted to say one more thing:

My friend and fellow theatre junkie Joe Boling also loved this piece.  He wrote about it  here on IndianaAuditions.com after he and his wife saw it.  I was surprised to learn through him that the character of Sophie was not written as being in a wheelchair.  The actor, Martha Jacobs, broke her ankle (1/31/10 – actually, fractured her kneecap) and the decision was made to put her character in a wheelchair from the 1940s.

It is a great (authentic-looking) wheelchair and I agree, mostly, with Joe that this works.  I remember wondering, just for a second, while I was watching the play, how much time it took every morning for this impeccably dressed woman to get herself up and ready to face the day in her wheelchair.  And now that I’m thinking about it more closely, I’m wondering if there was even an elevator in their building.  Surely she had to have some kind of companion?  Was she really going to unpack all her moving boxes by herself before May offered to help?

However, I learn something new every day about my own prejudices and my limited imagination in terms of what people with disabilities can and can not do, so maybe it was possible for an older, solitary woman in a wheelchair to live completely on her own in a Brooklyn apartment in the 1940s.  In any case, I didn’t give the wheelchair a second thought while I was watching the show.  I assumed without question that Sophie had been physically broken by her persecution and that she was a survivor.  I also think the whole wheelchair thing made me more willing to believe May’s annoying eagerness to embrace Sophie, as if to say “It is obvious to me that we can help each other.”  It definitely added layers to some of Sophie’s lines, such as:  “I am tired of being grateful…Every kindness has its price.”

I am glad I got to see it with the wheelchair.  I wish, for many reasons, that I had time to see this show again!

H.B.

2 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The Housewives of Mannheim” at the Phoenix”

  1. Hey, Hope:

    Regarding Martha and the wheelchair: Martha fractured her kneecap the week before rehearsals began. She got around using crutches but our guest director felt a (period) wheelchair would be more appropriate. (We rented it from the IRT, where it was used for FDR in a production.) Thankfully, the set was not complete so we could make sure halllways and doorways were wide enough! We considered writing Alan Brody to see if he could insert a line about Sophie’s need for the wheelchair, but Sophie already has lines establishing that she’s been through a lot and has arthritis in her hands, so we decided a script addition was not necessary as the audience would do exactly what you did: assume that she’s frail in more than one way. As to the elevator, Alice has a line just a couple of minutes in that says “Somebody’s moving in; they’ve got the pads up in the elevator.” So don’t worry; Sophie is not struggling up the stairs!

    P.S. Welcome back from your hectic start to the year!

  2. Thanks very much for the background info, Sharon! I really appreciate the value added to my blog; I also appreciate knowing just for myself.

    Thanks for the kind “welcome back,” too. 🙂

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