Ninety years after its debut, it's easy to see why Zona Gale's 1920 play Miss Lulu Bett garnered the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama awarded to a female playwright. Her work is at once a sparkling comedy and a curt indictment of the social position of women in the early years of the twentieth century. In Gale's play, the eponymous heroine has resigned herself to being an old maid and earning her keep as the household drudge for her brother-in-law, Dwight Deacon, a puffed-up, small-town justice of the peace. Lulu's life turns upside down after Deacon's ne'er-do-well brother Ninian arrives for a visit. When the lonely pair accidentally marry due to a peculiarity in the local law, Lulu gets a taste of both love and independence. Although the dubious legality of their marriage eventually forces Lulu to return to her former life, her spirit has been irrevocably altered.
Gale tenderly portrays all the women in the show, each of whom is constricted by the roles they are expected to play in society. Some characters' struggles are obvious: Lulu's chafes at her invisibility while her sister Ina transforms herself into a wheedling toady for her husband. Others, like teenager Di Deacon, suffer more quietly. Each woman, however, is trapped by social expectations which pass them from father to husband with no opportunity to know themselves.
Miss Lulu Bett is unusual in having had two different endings. Gale's original, feminist final scene is reminiscent of Ibsen's A Doll's House, with Lulu, like Nora, departing her hometown to work and to discover her own identity. A second ending, incorporated into the original Broadway production after a negative audience reaction, offers the heroine another chance at marital bliss. Director Kathleen Brant's current production seamlessly reaches a conclusion which is both satisfactory and poignant.
Brant has crafted an excellent, intelligent production, although she could have found more variety in the second act, which falters and becomes repetitive. Fortunately, the humor and honesty of Miss Lulu Bett compensates for its flaws.
The production is blessed with a number of excellent performances. Laurie Schroeder is perfect as Miss Lulu, deftly handling the character's transition from an under-appreciated shadow to forceful woman. Gerrianne Raphael creates a poignant portrait of Mrs. Bett, a woman who has suffered such losses in her own life that she supposes her daughter better off having nothing to lose. Meanwhile, Mary Ruth Baggott's Diana “wiggles and chitters” charmingly, beguiling both her family and the audience into underestimating her emotional compass.
As the bumbling neighbor Neil Cornish, Michael Gnat brings humor and humanity to each of his scenes. Anne Fizzard, however, teeters on the edge of caricature as Lulu's sister, Ina Deacon.
Miss Lulu Bett is also well-designed. Craig M. Napoliello's set seamlessly changes from a small-town dining room to a porch, which serves as a symbolic and literal threshold between Lulu's circumscribed life and her potential future. Napoliello's design is enhanced by Diana Duecker's lights, which create the illusion of a much larger space in the tiny WorkShop Theater. The costumes by Anna Gerdes are simple, yet in one moving scene painfully reveal the deprivation that Lulu has experienced in comparison to her nearest relatives. Jeffrey Swan Jones provides an intelligently-chosen soundtrack for the production.
Zona Gale's Miss Lulu Bett does not provoke the shock that Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House did forty years earlier. Nevertheless, it is a worthy play which has been lovingly produced. Catch it while you can.