Retro Girl Power

With the surprising introduction of Governor Sarah Palin to the presidential race, and the subsequent media coverage, the gender politics of Nowadays, a play written circa 1913 by George Middleton, seem fiercely, if bizarrely, relevant. Though some of the positions and jokes can feel as outdated as petticoats, The Metropolitan Playhouse’s exuberant production brings the play to wonderful (newfangled electric) light. As Middleton’s contemporaries did in the early 1900s, Americans continue to argue over the “proper” roles of women in society; for instance, whether it is fair to question a woman’s capacity to handle her maternal responsibilities in addition to those of the vice presidency. It is fitting that The Metropolitan Playhouse, an organization dedicated to unearthing unrecognized American works, focuses on such an American preoccupation, with hilarious results. To provide historical context, the early 1900s saw the gradual rise of the call for women’s suffrage, including the publication of Rheta Child Dorr’s “What 8 Million Women Want” (1910). That title happens to be a headline in the “Women’s Suffrage Edition” of the newspaper Will Dawson reads at the start of Nowadays. Dawson tries to dismiss the issue, but finds that his wife and daughter embrace the cause and its principles. As a proponent of women’s rights, Middleton pokes fun at its critics. At one point Dawson says to the newspaperman Peter Row, “… if we had woman suffrage, women would all vote like their husbands.” Row replies, “They say it would double the ignorant vote.”

Nowadays reduces the scope of such a grand debate by focusing on the issues of the Dawson family of a “middle western state.” The family includes a patriarch, Will, a comically gruff Frank Anderson, his lovely but lonely wife, Belle (Lisa Riegel), his cad of a son, Sammy (Matthew Trumbull), and his self-called prodigal daughter, the play’s spirit, Diana (an energetically wistful Amanda Jones). It is Christmastime and the holidays have drawn the Dawsons back to the homestead—their father hopes for good. As with many family gatherings, the expectations of the old generation grate against those of the new, and arguments ensue.

Thankfully, Middleton’s imagined family rows are much more entertaining than the real thing. Whereas the wayward habits of his son do little to ruffle Will’s feathers, Diana’s insistence upon leaving the roost to follow an artistic “calling” leave him red and stammering. Belle, being a progressive mother, encourages Diana, for she was similarly ambitious in her youth, but sacrificed her goals for marriage. In the role, Riegel is stoic and strong without sacrificing maternal warmth.

Belle’s choices and Will’s reactions form a referendum on women’s rights, but the gravity of the discussion is relieved by Will’s buffoonery, which also highlights the wit and charm of the women in his life—women who are capable of subverting his antiquated expectations to carve out unique identities.

In addition to prodding her father at every chance and inspiring her mother, Diana interferes in Sammy’s affairs by bringing a surprise guest. Betty Howe is a young woman who shares a secret with Sam, threatening to make a worthwhile man out of him. Where Jones’s Diana is chirpy, Trumbull’s Sammy is wormy and pale, his constant snarl obviously identifying him as the villain. However, given the tone of the script and its jokes, such caricatured portraits are in good fun. Indeed, as the patriarch, Anderson huffs in the familiar way of sitcom dads.

For all of Diana’s bouncy girlishness, Jones holds her own in battles with Anderson, proving that a domineering attitude can not only be practiced by a woman, but also used to propel her forward, rather yoke her to the past (as it does for Dawson). That Diana should succeed in her career as well as in her love life is an essential goal of the play, and she doesn’t have to sacrifice the feminine to achieve traditionally masculine goals.

As set designer and director, Alex Roe uses a cleverly arranged, intricate set to emphasize the strengths of the space. It is a delightfully intimate setting, which reinforces the lived-in charm of the home and highlights themes of claustrophobia and stagnancy. The presence of the audience and the absence of walls perfectly reflect Middleton’s efforts to bring the concerns of the private sphere to public attention.

However, as radical as the play was (it was rejected by producers), the institutions of marriage and motherhood are not torn down. Middleton playfully chips away at their foundations, but in the end, when his heroines follow their hearts, they do so in a progressive and a traditional sense. They can have their cake and eat it too, just as Middleton does when he mocks, but adheres to some standards of his day. Yet the play’s retro attitude and cheesy jokes are refreshing antidotes to the crude jokes of pit bulls and pigs that currently preoccupy the nation. Chalk it up to the timelessness of good timing!

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