In 1913, English novelist Rebecca West expressed frustration over being labeled a feminist, saying, "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat." Although women's rights have come a long way since West's time, Doris Baizley's thought-provoking play Mrs. California provides a potent reminder of where they were in 1955, after millions of men, back home from fighting overseas, had forced millions of women out of the work force and back into their homes.
Mrs. California opens in a kitchen, though it is an unusual one equipped with four stoves, refrigerators, counters, and tables that face out into the audience. Soon we learn it is not a kitchen at all but a television studio in the process of filming a contest that pits four Californian housewives against one another to compete for the title of Best Homemaker.
Mrs. San Francisco (Kristen Vaughan) is a beautiful, composed woman who speaks in soft, muted tones and demonstrates a flare for creating artistic meals. Mrs. San Bernardino (India Myone McDonald) is a ruthless competitor who often sneaks on the set at night to sample the other contestants' desserts with her fingers. Mrs. Modesto (Matilda Downey) is adorably different, with thick-rimmed glasses and unruly curly hair. Unlike the others, her smiles never look forced.
The fourth contestant is Dot (Heather E. Cunningham), a former member of WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) who was sharp enough to instantly decode an enemy message that helped save an entire naval convoy from destruction. Dot's best friend and neighbor, Babs (Elizabeth Burke), a talented electrician who once wired fighter jets, accompanies her to the homemaker competition, hoping to reawaken the ambitious, feisty girl she knew during wartime.
To Babs's surprise and disappointment, Dot, like the other contestants, has completely embraced her role as homemaker. She loves setting the table, baking chocolate cake, ironing her husband's shirts, and sewing creative apron patterns. Unfortunately, these activities are not as fun to watch onstage and tend to slow the story's pace when performed in long sequences set to classical music. But they are effective when presented in contrast to the moments where routine is broken and life shines through.
The play is strongest when we catch a glimpse of the complex personalities that lie beneath the judge-charming caricatures these women have created for themselves. Cunningham believably fleshes out Dot's seemingly mindless character through the slow revealing of hidden facets you wouldn't have guessed she possessed. A climactic speech about her "proudest moment" is stirring and strong, especially in the stunned moment when she trembles with the realization that her mother, aunts, and grandmother fought for equality, and here she stands, a competent woman who saved hundreds of soldiers' lives, struggling to earn respect by ironing a shirt. Within her lies a fiery, determined spirit that has been too easily and thoroughly suppressed.
It should be noted that Mrs. California is not denouncing housewives or discouraging marriage and child rearing. In fact, the play's other powerful monologue is spoken by the contest's winner, whose genuine love for her home and family is portrayed as commendable.
While the ideas in this play are focused on the women, the moral is universal: individuals need to look inside themselves the way Dot has, to find who they are outside of the imposed expectations of society and the media. The molds may have changed, but whether young women are encouraged to become happy homemakers, American Idols, or skinny supermodels, it is important to see plays like Mrs. California. They remind us of where we've been, so that in the future we will know for certain where we do not want to go.