Caryl Churchill’s superbly written and acted 1982 drama, “Top Girls” is a view of women in London in the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister (1979-1990), when her Conservative Party emphasized achieving individual success, rather than fostering community in general through, among other things, unions and social programs. And on a more microcosmic level, it’s the tale of two sisters, the Thatcherite Marlene (excellent Michelle Beck) and her sister, Joyce (outstanding Nafeesa Monroe), who have taken separate paths to womanhood.
Marlene, who has just aced out a man to become the managing director at the “Top Girls” employment agency, is the personification of the Thatcher female. She’s given up her personal life to get where she is and is outwardly thrilled about her achievement. Her sister Joyce has remained in the countryside, looks after their ailing mother and her awkward, lost teenage daughter, Angie (outstanding Gabriella Momah).
In the fantastic first scene, ably directed by Tamilla Woodard (“Men on Boats”), Marlene, looking ravishing in a power-shouldered satin jumpsuit (costumes by Sarita Fellows), is celebrating her promotion, and has invited guests who are all fictional, mythical and historical women. It’s quite a spectacular scene. Although on the large Geary Theater stage, and perhaps because of the direction, the conversation is occasionally hard to follow, and the dinner party lacks intimacy.
Each of the women guests has lived through distinctive historical periods of women’s subjugation, and each has suffered mightily. Those who have had children seem to have suffered the most. Yet, they sit around the table, talking over each other like old friends, seemingly having accepted their fates. And Marlene sees herself as the culmination of this progression of women.
The legendary Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) was doing a fine job masquerading as a male pope in the 800s (and the food was fabulous, she adds) until she gave birth, and was stoned to death. Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), born in 1258, was the Emperor’s concubine until he forced her out. Yet, she accepted as her destiny his despicable behavior and the tragic loss of her children.
Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams) is Chaucer’s character in “The Clerk’s Tale,” one of “The Canterbury Tales.” Griselda, a peasant, had been chosen to be the wife of the Marquis, although he mandated that she must always obey him. He put Griselda through terrible trials, including taking away her children, yet she accepted her husband’s actions.
Dull Gret (Summer Brown) is an image from a painting by Pieter Breughel (1525–1569), in which a woman wearing an apron, armor, and helmet leads a mob of peasant women into Hell. Isabella Bird (1831-1904), played by Julia McNeal, spent her life traveling the world and wrote books about her adventures, happily leaving her “beloved” sister at home in Scotland.
It’s hard to replicate the excitement of the dinner party. Later in the play, we meet the uncompromising women who work at Top Girls. They are experts in skewering the several prospective applicants, as they penetrate the candidates’ employment fictions.
There is also an intense scene during one of Marlene’s infrequent visits back home. Marlene and Joyce argue about their lives, with Marlene mirroring the Conservative Party’s view of life and Joyce being repelled by Marlene’s coldness. It’s a mighty confrontation, as only those between sisters can be. Ironically, neither sister has been in full control of her life. And then there is Angie, who shows up in London with the unrealistic idea of living with Marlene. What will become of Angie is the sad unanswered question of “Top Girls.”
I saw an excellent production of “Top Girls” by Berkeley’s Shotgun Players in 2015 (a bit of this review is extracted from my earlier one) and appreciated distinctive aspects of the drama each time. From a historical viewpoint, “Top Girls,” is in that quiet time period between becoming a classic play and appearing slightly dated. My bet is that it becomes a classic.
By Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2019 All Rights Reserved.