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A CurtainUp Review
Miss Lulu Bett
The story is engrossing and builds up to a shattering climax. Set in a small town in Wisconsin, it traces the experience of Miss Lulu Bett, the 34-year-old unmarried sister of Mrs. Ina Deacon. Lulu is a servant in the family home, earning her keep by taking care of the household. A visit from Deacon's impulsive brother Ninian brings an unexpected romance and marriage proposal. Seizing the chance to leave the Deacon home and have a life of her own, Lulu marries Ninian and both set off to Savannah to begin a new life. But when Lulu learns a terrible secret about Ninian's past, it destroys their relationship and the little emotional security she had gained. Returning to the Deacon home in Wisconsin, she is faced with the dreadful dilemma of telling the actual truth to folks or lying to save the family's reputation.
Miss Lulu Bett glows with wistful beauty. In some elusive way, it touches the heart and stirs your sympathy for its titular character. Uneducated and oppressed by her Midwestern family Lulu is hardly a New Woman . But she grows immensely during the course of the story, and before you exit the theater you will witness her indomitable will and fearlessness.
Critics and scholars have rightly compared Gale's play to Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Both works emphasize the unequal position of women in a household, and how toxic that can be to a woman's psyche. Discrimination against women was very much on Gale's mind when she penned Miss Lulu Bett. She took an active role in the creation of the Wisconsin Equal Rights Law, which prohibited discrimination against women. But her play speaks beyond gender. It also exposes the power of money and the darker realities of the American class system.
The play's history is unique. Originally a novella, it was dramatized by Gale in a mere 8 days and its first production was at Sing Sing Prison on December 26, 1920. Just a day later it opened on Broadway to good reviews. Notwithstanding, Gale was persuaded to rework the her conclusion for commercial purposes (and an anticipated National Tour). Gale called this revision an "inartistic happy ending." She wisely retained the original script and later, she published both versions, convinced that they were not antithetical but different expressions of the play's central themes.
Brant has decided to go with the original feminist ending. Thus, we have a rare opportunity to see the play in its pristine version. One of the play's key themes is human inertia and the challenges of overcoming its poison if one is to emerge as a vigorous individual. In an early scene, we can clearly see this theme surface when Ninian asks Lulu why she doesn't leave her demeaning job at the Deacons' home. She explains, "But, you see, I can't do any other work— that's the trouble— women like me can't do any other work."
The production is shrewdly cast and soundly directed. In the leading role, Laurie Schroeder deftly captures the introverted pride and quiet shame of Lulu. All the other parts are competently acted by the large ensemble: David M. Mead as the paterfamilias Dwight Deacon; Anne Fizzard as his conventional wife Ina; Mary Ruth Baggott as their naïve daughter Diana; Kate Castaneda-La Mar (alternating with Maya Jasinska) as the bratty younger daughter Monona; Gerrianne Raphael as the stoic Mrs. Betts; Dan Patrick Brady as the caddish Ninian; Ben Sumrall as the young suitor Bobby Larkin; and Michael Gnat as Lulu's loyal friend.
Performed in the intimacy of a small black box theater with a minimalist set (by Craig M. Napoliello), one can truly feel the immediacy and power of the play. The production's big gaffe is the conspicuous omission of sex. There is flirting flecked into a number of scenes, but nothing to ruffle any petticoat. Even when Lulu returns to the Deacon homestead after being married to Ninian for one month, there is no mention of their sexual intimacy, only that she is "a fallen woman." Obviously, sex was a taboo subject in the polite society of the ywenties. Yet considering that Gale's contemporary, Eugene O'Neill, was pushing the theatrical boundaries in 1921 by having a prostitute represented in Anna Christie, Gale was far more conservative in her dramatic writing.
As the first female-penned Pulitzer Prize winner, Miss Lulu Bett stands out in theater history. Though other important American plays have joined the female canon, Gale's work was the progenitor, and changed the theatrical landscape. That's why you won't want to miss this rare revival of a landmark work, don't miss this current production. By staging the original version Brant doesn't give you a happy ending, but something more vital: an unvarnished portrait of an American family.
Editor's Note: The other revival Deirdre mentioned was produced by the Mint Theater company (also the original version). To read that review go here.