“Top Girls,” an early work by brilliant British playwright Caryl Churchill now at Keegan Theatre, opens with a fantastical scene. What first seems a meeting of rather eccentrically dressed fashionistas is in fact a collection of extraordinary women from history, literature and myth gathered in a trendy London restaurant to celebrate ambitious Marlene’s promotion to managing director of an employment agency.
Marlene’s (Karina Hilleard) assembled guests include Victorian explorer Isabella Bird (Keegan’s artistic director Susan Marie Rhea), the 13th-century Japanese courtesan-turned-Buddhist nun Lady Nijo (Alexandra Palting), woman warrior Dull Gret (Caroline Dubberly) from the Brueghel painting, and Pope Joan (an ethereal Jessica Lefkow). Mid-meal and many drinks in, they’re joined by Patient Griselda (Amanda Forstrom), a character from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Seated at a long table facing the audience à la da Vinci’s “Last Supper” backed by a jagged London cityscape, the women, ostensibly gathered to toast Marlene, quickly put the spotlight on themselves sharing triumphs and insights, except for Dull Gret who merely adds the well-timed grunt or one-word comment. But soon the conversation turns to their disappointments and how they were ultimately hurt or held back by men. The worst fates were suffered by Pope Joan and Griselda, whose husband tested her in the most barbaric ways.
It’s a fascinating dinner, nicely paced by director Amber Paige McGinnis and well-acted. It’s not the least ponderous and cleverly constructed with Churchill’s dialogue intentionally overlapping and interrupting.
The second act, set firmly in the days of Thatcherism (the timely, not-dated play premiered in London in 1982) as evidenced by Marlene’s big shoulder-padded power suits, moves to the Top Girls employment agency where Marlene is busy moving up the corporate ladder. But even for Marlene who true to Iron Lady philosophy believes, “anyone can do anything if they’ve got what it takes” can’t have it all. In pursuit of success she’s abandoned her family.
And sadly, the striving women in the Top Girls office treat female applicants in the same ways men have traditionally treated working women. One’s wedding aspirations deem her inferior and a middle-aged woman is treated with suspicion for wanting to leave a longtime position where she has been passed unfairly passed over for promotion. A young wannabe executive (Daven Raltson) proves impressive until it becomes amusingly clear her work history is less than accurate. Here and throughout the play, Churchill subtly and sometimes not so subtly reminds us that the success of one woman rarely correlates to the whole.
Hilleard’s Marlene has many notes; she’s tough as nails yet sympathetic. The remainder of the seven-woman cast agilely move in out and of varied roles. In some instances, performances might be reined in a tad.
In the third act, which predates the second by a year, Marlene returns to her working-class roots. She’s gone to provincial Ipswich where her unhappy sister Joyce (Rhea) who ekes out a living as a cleaner is raising Marlene’s aggressive and mentally challenged teenage daughter Angie (Dubberly) as her own. Talk turns to politics. Marlene awkwardly spouts bootstrap rhetoric where it’s least appreciated.
For the more vulnerable, the prevailing feeling is fear. Not dated, indeed.