This season on Broadway, testosterone has been as prevalent as the New York City summer heat. What is perhaps most remarkable about this phenomenon, however, is not the noticeable dominance of male-heavy shows but the significance of their content and the frustrating lack of comparable significance in shows featuring all-women casts. Steel Magnolias may be a diverting enough play, but it withers next to the drama and sheer power and urgency of Democracy or Twelve Angry Men. For those seeking a play about female empowerment and strength, one not focused solely on the drama of getting married or giving birth, there is a welcome respite in the current Off-Off-Broadway production of Kevin O'Morrison's Ladyhouse Blues at the Linhart Theatre. Directed by Marc Weitz and produced by 3 Graces Theater Co., a theater company "committed to exposing and exploring the power of women's experience through theater," the play revolves around the issues facing the four Madden sisters and their mother, who live in St. Louis in 1919. At times a bit overstuffed, Ladyhouse Blues is nevertheless a charming and touching look at a family of women who are close enough to lean on each another, but strong enough to stand on their own.
Set in the kitchen of the Madden home, the play starts while the audience is filtering in, with actors in turn-of-the-century working-class garb passing out fans and fruit and hawking their wares from the wings. Designed by Alexis Distler, the set, a skeletal frame of a large kitchen, is cleverly suggestive enough to provide a homey setting where the Madden family convenes to discuss all-important family business, yet sparse enough to allow the ensemble to create ambience-setting, between-scenes montages of wartime and struggle.
Indeed, the Madden sisters are products of their hard times. Eylie, the youngest, is a waitress who, along with her suffragist sister Terry, brings in the only income. Helen, who is married to a man of German descent, has consumption, is not allowed to see her young child, and can barely leave her home. Dot, a New York transplant and former model, is pregnant with the second child of her socialite husband, whose family does not approve of her. Liz, their mother, has had to raise her six children alone since she was 26, after the death of her husband, and her only son, Bud, is fighting in the Great War.
If this sounds like a lot of plot points, it is. And yet, the travails of these very different sisters weave a tapestry of love and labor that becomes engaging and heartwarming.
Weitz does an admirable job of attempting to meld both the elements of societal influence and private values. Yet his direction sometimes gets muddy, as when the ensemble, whether peddling wares or singing with a visiting revival, frequently overpowers the dialogue. Weitz also fails to rein in the play's focus in the second act. The play's most dramatic event, involving the sisters' brother Bud, fails to resonate as it perhaps should, because there is so much left to resolve or even address.
This lack of resolution also lies in a lack of focus for at least some of the characters. Most of the sisters' love and strength and rebellion come from their mother Liz, played by Kathleen Bishop with a little too much aw-shucks, quirky-yet-strong, "Southern" cartoonishness. And as the matron, she is given the play's most whopping one-liners, which she delivers without restraint, such as "God, I can't help but feelin' if you was a woman, you'da done it different."
Yet her performance is also paired with some wonderfully nuanced ones. Annie McGovern's Dot, the ailing, pregnant wife of a New England aristocrat, is wonderful to watch as she uses her dainty features to full comic potential, and to also show her suffering. Nitra Gutierrez fills the stage with energy and warmth as Eylie, and Dorothy Abrahams as Terry, the suffragist, is full of charm and passion.
Ladyhouse Blues is not a perfect production. Weitz's direction sometimes lacks delicacy, and some of the acting at times feels heavy-handed and overwrought. Despite those small flaws, the play will touch you in unexpected ways. "Ladyhouse" is an old word for a house full of women waiting for their men to return from war. Perhaps it would be appropriate to find another title for this play about a group of strong women who are so engaging to watch.