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Top Girls remains heartbreakingly relevant

The decision by the New York Times editorial board to endorse both Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic nomination seems puzzling—until one remembers that women are so often framed and bundled according to their (allegedly) opposite number. No woman can be considered in full without reference to a woman somewhere who has made different choices. And those choices must then be assigned moral values as part of the not-so-subtle whip hand employed by patriarchy, the “let’s you and her fight” dynamic inherent in every “mommy war” think piece.

Caryl Churchill’s 1982 Top Girls was written as a rebuke to the Margaret Thatcher era and a response to the notion that taking over the corner office (or Downing Street) was itself inherently liberating. But though Churchill uses the bifurcating (and suffocating) choices faced by women as a skeleton for her story, she’s far too clever and insightful to bleach its bones of nuance, irony, and wit.

Remy Bumppo staged Churchill’s play 18 years ago in a production I much admired. Now they’ve revived it under Keira Fromm’s direction, and its relevance remains pungent and painful.

The play begins with a dinner party called by Marlene (Linda Gillum), who has just been promoted to managing director at her employment agency (called Top Girls). She’s surrounded by women real but dead (Victorian traveler Isabella Bird, 13th century Japanese noblewoman-turned-Buddhist-nun Lady Nijo), fictional (Patient Griselda, celebrated by Chaucer as the perfect obedient wife, Dull Gret from Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting of peasant women attacking demons in Hell), and the in-between (medieval Pope Joan, whose existence continues to be debated in some circles).

Sweeping around in a sequined black gown like Rosalind Russell’s Auntie Mame (great costumes throughout by Raquel Adorno and Meeka Postman), Marlene tosses back white wine while the women tell overlapping tales of their lives. Spoiler alert: they nearly all circle back to betrayal by men and regret for roads not taken.

The second act begins with two young girls, Angie (Aurora Real de Asua) and Kit (Amber Sallis) playing in Angie’s backyard. Angie is putatively Marlene’s niece, though she suspects—rightly—that she’s actually her daughter and that Joyce (Rebecca Spence), who is raising her, is her aunt. An interlude where she fantasizes about killing Joyce with a brick contains eerie echoes of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, based on a real-life matricide in New Zealand.

The scene shifts again to Top Girls on the Monday after the dinner party, where the women we met as legends at Marlene’s roundtable now return as everyday elbow-throwers and supplicants in a cube farm, desperate to find a better position, somewhere. Angie shows up in Marlene’s office, as does the wife of the man who was passed over for the promotion, essentially demanding that Marlene step down for the sake of his ego.

The third act takes us back in time a year or so earlier to Angie and Joyce’s dingy home, where Marlene has made a rare return visit on the heels of Thatcher’s election. It explodes in class warfare, but the tensions between Gillum’s Marlene and Spence’s Joyce aren’t just about money. They’re about the internalized doubt and guilt that neither woman can unload unless it’s in the direction of the other. Angie’s absent father (who apparently abandoned the pregnant Marlene) and Joyce’s unfaithful husband (as well as the sisters’ own abusive dad) aren’t blamed so much as taken as par for the course in a woman’s life.

What lifts Churchill’s play and Fromm’s production above off-the-shelf dialectics about feminism and class are the empathetic details used to make every woman onstage come to life beneath the surface stereotypes. Annabel Armour (who played Joyce in the 2001 Remy Bumppo production) shines as both the eccentric Isabella and as Louise, an older woman interviewing at the agency who has spent her life making men look good in business and seeing them step over her. “I have had to justify my existence every minute, and I have done so,” she says, with an air of both pride and nagging suspicion that nobody will, in fact, miss her when she’s gone.

Gillum’s Marlene is hard-edged, but she’s not entirely wrong to feel pride in her accomplishments—even if they came at the cost of abandoning her daughter. (Powerful men, of course, abandon children all the time without it wreaking havoc on their social standing.) Spence’s Joyce sticks the knife in by reminding Marlene that the “stupid, lazy, or frightened” people she’s dismissing in praise of Thatcherism include Angie.

And so it’s fitting that de Asua’s Angie gets the last word of the play: “frightened.” She’s right to be scared. What’s unsettling to realize in watching Remy Bumppo’s kaleidoscopic but razor-sharp production is that our fraught times give us more reasons to be fearful now than there were in 1982, or 2001. And patriarchy shows no signs of tossing out the toxic rulebook that continues to split and condense women’s experiences into convenient stereotypes.  v

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