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A CurtainUp Review
Woman of the World
By Paulanne Simmons
Emily Dickinson and I never spoke a single word to one another. Truth be told, I never laid eyes on Emily until the day I saw her in her coffin.— Mary Loomis Todd
Mabel Loomis Todd can be considered an intriguing historical figure. The daughter of down-at- the-heels New England brahmins she spent most of her youth in boardinghouses. Her bad luck didn’t get much better when in 1877 she married David Peck Todd, an astronomer whose love life resembled that of a wondering explorer more than a fixed star, until he died of syphilis in 1939.

However, after the couple moved to Amherst, Mass. when Todd became astronomy professor at Amherst College, Mabel bloomed. She joined the church choir. She became involved in local theater. She wrote and lectured about her travels with David in search of solar eclipses. She mingled with the literati. In fact, she even began a long affair with Emily Dickinson’s married brother, Austin. After Emily died, she became a controversial editor of the poet’s work.

This is the story recounted in Rebecca Gilman’s A Woman of the World, now making its premiere at 59E59 Theaters, under the direction of Valentina Fratti. The luminous Kathleen Chalfant is Mabel Loomis Todd.

The solo show is set in the parlor of the Point Breeze Inn on Hog Island, Maine, in 1931, where Mabel, at 75, is addressing a small group of admirers. Among those admirers is her own daughter, Millicent. Although Millicent never speaks, Mabel frequently addresses her. Mabel’s reactions make it clear Millicent is both embarrassed and annoyed by much of what her mother reveals.

Certainly, Mabel paints herself as a free spirit. And as a “Woman of the World” in late 1800s New England, she knows she’s considered a fallen woman. For Mabel, this is a badge of honor. Yet, inexplicably, she can’t seem to understand why old friends drop her or why some people in Dickinson’s family don’t seem to approve of her relationship with Austin. In fact, she seems to be at a loss when Austin’s wife, Sue, treats her disrespectfully.

Mabel’s most ardently wishes Sue dead so she can marry Austin. Although she claims she still loves the philandering David (who understandably does not object to her relationship with Austin), she is convinced the love between her and Austin is special and “ordained.” However, the spiciest part of her tale involves a 4-way romp with Austin, David, Mabel and Mabel’s cousin, Caro.

Some people may indeed find Mabel’s meandering stroll through her past amusing. Others may find it tawdry. Mabel’s revelations are especially troubling, considering her daughter is in the audience. But the other problem with the play is that Mabel just isn’t that interesting, especially in these times, when her activities are hardly shocking. Most likely she would be entirely forgotten without her relationship with Dickinson (whom, she admits, she never actually met).

Most of the entertainment value of this long monologue comes from Chalfant, who is, as always, magnificent. The role is a natural for this distinguished septuagenarian, and she makes the most of it. She is alternately passionate, nasty, naïve and worldly. She is even a touch of a poet.

But despite Chalfont’s best efforts, Gilman’s considerable talents as a writer, and the perfectly appropriate, intimate nature of the venue, sometimes it seems Gilman might have been better off writing about someone who is more than occasionally intriguing, someone really important — like Emily Dickinson.

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A Woman of the Worldv by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Valentina Fratti
With Kathleen Chalfant as Mabel Loomis Todd
Set Design: Cate McCrae
Costume Design: Candice Donnelly
Lighting Design: Margaret Montagna
Production Stage Manager: Nina Trotto
Running Time: 1 hour 15 minutes, no intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 E 59 Street between Park and Madison,
From 10/24/2019; opening 10/30/2019; closing 11/17/2019
Tuesday-Friday at 7:30PM, Saturday at 2:20PM and 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:30PM, added performances 10/7 & 10/14 at 2:30PM
Tickets: $25-$35 ($26 for 59E59 Members)
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct, 25, 2019<

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