By Karen Isaacs
Wendy Wasserstein wrote plays about strong women — women who were intelligent and challenged prevailing “wisdom” – from Heidi Holland, the art professor in The Heidi Chronicles, to The Sisters Rosenweig to Laurie Jameson in Wasserstein’s last play Third, now at TheaterWorks through Nov. 8
At times her plays mirrored periods in Wasserstein’s own life. The Heidi Chronicles takes its main character from adolescence to the early thirties, the sisters in The Sisters Rosensweig are in their forties and this play, written within two years of her death at 55, features a woman in mid-life.
Laurie Jameson is an academic star – she is an intellectual who teaches literature at a prestigious, small New England college. She writes scholarly books on the hot buttons of literary interpretation – all of which attack the standard interpretations as dominated with the white, male perspective. She not only was one of the first women on the faculty – the school at one time had been all male, but she has paved the way for others.
In the opening scene, she tells her students on what is apparently the first day of class, that Goneril and Regan, two of Lear’s daughters are the heroes of King Lear because they out manipulate him and that Cordelia, who is often viewed as the most sympathetic character, succumbs to the male fantasy of girlishness.
But she is under stress. Her best friend and fellow faculty member, Nancy Gordon, has suffered a reoccurrence of cancer. Her younger daughter, Emily, has entered college, leaving an empty nest. Her husband is remote and a disappointment. She has moved her father to the college town as he is slowly descending into dementia. And she has hot flashes.
But that is not all; she is obsessed by the news or the latest Iraq War that started in 2002.
Unfortunately for him, a male student – Woodson Bull, III – or Third as he likes to be called – becomes the focal point of Laurie’s anger. He is – or she thinks he is – all that she despises: a white student athlete (a wrestler), who went to a noted prep school, who has never had to struggle and will achieve without trying because of the establishment. Even the fact that he wants to be a sports agent and that his grandfather and father both are alums reaffirms her opinion.
Early on, she tells him that he doesn’t belong at the school; he’d be better off at a state university, a not-so-subtle jab at his intellectual capabilities.
So when he turns in a brilliant and original paper on Lear, she accuses him of plagiarizing and brings him up on charges to the campus committee.
By the end of the first act, it is hard to like Laurie: you may understand her pressures, but she is SO sure of herself and her views of the world, shaped in part by her 1970s coming of age, that you want to shake her. Your sympathy is totally with Third.
You realize that she has allowed her anger and her stereotyping to overlook Third’s real intellectual abilities and interest.
So Wasserstein has stacked the deck. But she has also not prepared us, at all, for act two.
Laurie is still angry and stressed – her dad is getting worse. Emily is dating someone Laurie views as inferior and is thinking about dropping out of college. Her husband has his own mid-life crisis and is hanging out with the local motorcycle club. And her best friend, not only votes to exonerate Third, but is happily dating a rabbi as she recovers from a bone marrow transplant.
In a rather contrived scene, Emily meets Third as an empty bar where he is bartending. After she convinces him to have a vodka with her, he tells her about the “bitch professor” who has nearly ruined his life: his father has sunk back into depression, he lost his scholarship, and the coach is no longer interested in his athletic abilities.
What follows are scenes where it seems that the world unloads on Laurie: first her daughter tells her what has happened to Third as well as other truths about her attitudes towards her husband and daughters. Then Nancy unleashes some truths of her own.
The finale includes another somewhat contrived scene with Third which wraps up the plot; I’ll not reveal the details here.
Rob Ruggiero has done an excellent job directing this play – which is an imperfect one. Perhaps if Wasserstein had lived, she might have revised it. (At the time she was writing the play, she was being diagnosed and treated for cancer which killed her in January 2006 just after Third closed at Lincoln Center).
But Ruggiero overstressed Laurie’s anger and almost manic energy in the first act. Kate Levy plays Laurie as so angry and passionate that she seems to have no real empathy or understanding for anyone else. When her daughter accuses her of preferring her older daughter because she is a lesbian and in a relationship with a Guggenheim poet, it perfectly characterizes her values. She can’t turn off the news to listen to her daughter.
Conor M. Hamill plays Third as the student who becomes the focal point of Laurie’s anger. This young actor who is a recent graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, makes you see Third’s incredulity at the charges. While he appears self-confident and assured, Hamill shows us the uncertain young student who wants intellectual challenges. He lets us see the vulnerability beneath the “golden boy” exterior.
Andrea Gallo as Laurie’s fellow faculty member and friend, Nancy Gordon, brings some needed humor to the play with a warm and almost motherly characterization. Olivia Hoffman as Emily shows us the daughter who because she is living a life that is more “normal” is overlooked by Laurie and her feminist political viewpoint. Edmond Genest is Laurie’s father; it is a thankless role – to bring some humanity to Laurie and to show another of the pressures she is under.
Third is, in some ways, a maddening play – it raises interesting issues but creates a character that seems one-dimensional and totally unsympathetic and gives us a second act that seems lacking in real motivation.
Yet, it will cause to think about how we all stereotype people and often act upon our stereotypes to the detriment of the actual people involved.
Third is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford, through Nov. 8. For tickets call 860-527-7838.
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