LETTERS TO EDITOR
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Diana of Dobson's
The Mint Theater Company has once again gone treasure hunting in the cobwebbed archives of forgotten plays. Their latest retrieval is Diana of Dobson's, the work of Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952) who wielded her pen on behalf England's Women's Movement. Hamilton's many credits included two intriguingly titled books -- an influential nonfiction treatise, Marriage As a Trade and her autobiography, Life Errant.
Diana of Dobson's, written and produced in 1908, was the most popular of the three plays she wrote. Admirers of G. B. Shaw (who was twenty years her senior but wrote about the same time) will recognize a Shavian marriage of social conscience and entertaining fiction. Ms. Hamilton's heroine, Diana Massingberd (Rachel Sledd), is also in the best tradition of Shaw's more memorable heroines. She's a feisty, intelligent and impoverished young woman, the daughter of a deceased country doctor who left her to fend for herself as a shopgirl at Dobson's Emporium. The "live-in" system common at such establishments at the time were akin to indentured servitude, with the girls herded together in ill-equipped dormitories.
For a spirited girl like Diana, this gray and restricted world is particularly unbearable and unjust. She is the s sort one would expect to lead a movement for reform (like the author). Since Hamilton opted to wrap her outcry against this Dickensian exploitation of women in an entertaining play, she provides her heroine with a Cinderella style reprieve from her hopeless existence. The reprieve comes by post -- a letter from a lawyer informing Diana that she's inherited three hundred pounds from an unknown relative. In the economy of the day, if Diana invested that three hundred pounds she might earn half her twelve pound a year wages and thus have some small measure of security. Instead, she decides to spend it all on a fling which will give her something to remember for the rest of her life.
The result is a fairy tale in which Diana her own fairy godmother transforms herself into a rich widow. After buying a suitable wardrobe in Paris she heads for a hotel in the Swiss Alps where she wins new friends and two admirers.
This being a Shavian fairy tale, we have two atypical Prince Charmings: Captain Victor Bretherton (Karl Kenzler), handsome but not too bright and in dire financial straits. His attraction to Diana is intensified by the prospect that she can support his nonproductive life style. The second romantic interest on Diana's horizon is Sir Jabez Grinley mostly referred to as Sir George (John Plumpis),. He is a self-made and recently knighted tycoon who doesn't realize that Diana has been one of the wage slaves on whose back he rose to wealth and power.
I couldn't imagine a better Diana than Rachel Sledd. She looks like one of the loveliest of Charles Dana Gibson's lovely cover girls and proves herself capable of a wide range of emotions. The rest of the large cast --thirteen in all -- are smoothly shepherded through the play's four scenes by director Eleanor Reissa. Their performances are generally excellent, especially Mikel Sarah Lambert as Victor's practical aunt, Mrs. Cantelupe, and Glynis Bell as her chum Mrs. Whyte-Fraser.
I won't spoil things with details about what happens when Diana's inheritance runs out. It doesn't really matter. It's what happens on the way to the final scene of this fairy tale with a social conscience that makes for the play's strengths and begs forgiveness for its major and minor flaws..
The major flaws pop up in the second act when Diana, despite her get-up-and-go spirit proves not to be quite the self-propelled heroine we'd like her to be. The two men who are drawn to her also don't evolve quite as one would wish. With a denouement that seems geared to the interests of audience-pleasing, the business tycoon is never allowed to develop into the more interesting character he initially promises to be.
There are also minor shortcomings in Ms. Reissa's otherwise excellent direction. In one instance a little notebeook in which Diana tallies up her finances is left on a table so that the true state of her affairs could easily be discovered by several of her new friends. Two of them actually pick it up and glance through it, but nothing ever comes of it. It's like the perennial smoking gun that never goes off. *** In another vein, one of the shop girls in the first scene is allowed to go too far with a shrill imitation of Eliza Doolittle's flower girl howl.
As always with the Mint's productions, the staging is amazingly attractive and versatile. Set designer Sarah Lambert has provided three locations without a single awkward pause for moving props.
Diana of Dobson's is the second old-fashioned shop girl story I've seen in less than a month. The other, The It Girl, also a Cinderella tale, is a small musical gem (our review). Both are tributes to theater at its most intimate and adventurous. Like most shows mounted by Off-Broadway companies, their lives tend to be brief -- like Diana Massingberd's adventure.
*** Editor's Note: Right after we posted this review we had an e-mail from the Mint's artistic director Jonathan Banks. Here's what he had to say about that little book: . . . "the book that Diana is studying at the top of the second act is the "Continental Bradshaw", the train schedule, not a record of her finances. I certainly can see how you would think it was her personal notebook, a detail we should try and clear up". And so, it looks as if by the time you see the show, the little book will no longer be subject to our quibble. Isn't it nice to have directors who heed their audiences' reactions.
Links to Other Plays Rescued by the Mint Theater:
The Voysey Inheritance
Miss Lulu Bett/