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 | Vol. 8, No. 22, May 31, 2007
(Doing His Duty)

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The Weaker Sex?

by Beege Welborn

TWO PLAYS BY PULITZER PLAYWRIGHTS EXAMINE ROLES OF WOMEN

Women. The subject is women. Our perception of them and others’ perception of them as objects, partners and individuals.

“27 Wagons Full of Cotton” written by Tennessee Williams and “Trifles” written by Susan Glaspell are both one-act plays.

Both revolve around women in extraordinary and emotionally charged circumstances.  Directed by Theresa Myers, they’re being presented back-to-back in a single evening by Studio 400 of the Pensacola Little Theatre.

Myers points out that these are two of the earliest works by both authors.

“I was very interested in it,” she says. “The two playwrights both eventually won Pulitzer prizes. They’re very well-written pieces.”

Williams referred to his two-scene play as “a Mississippi Delta comedy.” (It eventually was made into a movie called “Babydoll.”).  But comedy is in the eye of the beholder. 

“27 Wagons” tells the story of Flora and Jake. She’s a child-like, lazy, otherworldly creature married to Jake, the loutish, thuggish owner of a cotton gin. They have a volatile relationship in rural Mississippi.

Discussing the play on the renowned literary blog “The Sheila Variations,” Sheila O’Malley says: “Flora is content in her life as long as she has bottles of Coca Cola in the house, and she gets to carry her nice little white kid purse.” 

Flora feebly protests Jake’s treatment of her, or attempts to ignore it, preferring to remain a manipulated trinket. It’s just easier, and one begins to doubt whether she has the capacity and fortitude to overcome her situation in any event.

Jake hatches a scheme to burn down a competing local cotton gin, in turn forcing the 27 wagons already full of picked cotton to his establishment for ginning. The resulting explosion at the neighboring plantation opens the play. 

O’Malley notes: “Flora watches the fire from the porch, incredibly annoyed because Jake had promised to take her downtown for a Coke, and now he is nowhere to be found.”

When Jake returns from his successful arson attempt, he alternately threatens and cajoles Flora to say he “never left the porch that night.”

Scene two opens with neighbor Silva Vicarro discussing his 27 wagons of cotton with Jake. The fact that Vicarro knows Jake set the fire is obvious to everyone but Jake, who blithely trots off to handle the cotton’s arrival. Vicarro is left with the fragile Flora, and the ensuing brutal seduction is not for the faint of heart.

The PLT’s other offering, “Trifles,” is a one-act play written in 1916, but amazingly timeless in its depiction of societal roles.

“It’s based on a true story, you know,” adds Myers. “(Glaspell) was a reporter and actually reported on the trial of the woman who was accused of killing her husband. She subsequently quit her job as a reporter. Then, she ended up founding the Provincetown Players with Eugene O’Neill, and this was her first play.”

Actress Sheryse Wilhelm, who’s playing Mrs. Hale in the PLT Studio 400 production, has greatly enjoyed the role’s challenges.

“It’s such a wonderful, dark piece,” she says. Tim Chaney, who’s playing Mr. Henderson, the county attorney, in the play, emphatically concurs with Wilhelm.

“Trifles” opens in a gloomy Iowa farmhouse kitchen. Filled with unfinished work—dirty towels, a loaf of bread outside the breadbox, dirty dishes under the sink—all the little things left undone become the nexus for solving the murder of John Wright.

The investigation is handled officially by the sheriff, county attorney and the man who discovered the victim. They’re accompanied by two of their wives, who also happen to be friends of Minnie Wright, the accused murderess.

The men see the scene as a place to search for motive for “something to show anger,” which is all they need to establish Minnie’s guilt.

Meanwhile, the women are there ostensibly to collect articles Minnie wishes brought to her in the county lock-up. But they discover the real clues strewn among the wreckage, as they gather her belongings.  An unfinished quilt, with uneven stitching in one of the blocks. A broken birdcage and a strangled canary wrapped in silk, found in “a pretty box.” These “trifles” speak volumes to the women and they begin to piece together the truth of Minnie’s life with her abusive husband, as well as ruminate on their own.

It is a quiet, taut clash of communication errors between the sexes, played out within the roles assigned to each sex by society.

As Minnie’s friend Mrs. Hale muses somberly, “We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.”

Myers offers high praise for her troupe’s performances in the face of such difficult, somber, thought-provoking material.

“I mean they’re terrific! They’re doing such fine work,” the director says. “It’s not a light evening, but it’s great theater.”

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