BULL IN A CHINA SHOP, playing through October 14th at Diversionary Theatre, is a fast paced comedy that looks at the historical friendship of Mary Woolley and Jeanette Marks through a contemporary lens as they try to reform the meaning of women’s education during the height of the suffragette movement, without losing their jobs, their focus, or their relationship to each other.
This play by Bryna Turner is a lot like its main character of Mary Woolley (Jo Anne Glover); it’s direct, sentimental, funny, and confrontational. As the playwright states in her statement in the program, this is a “deliberate queering of history…making room for people who have been routinely denied a place in the narrative.” So the historical friendship of Woolley and Jeanette Marks (Tamara McMillian) becomes a lesbian relationship between two highly educated and headstrong women who are trying to navigate the present while shaping the future.
As Woolley become President of Mount Holyoke College, Marks is soon hired on as a somewhat reluctant English teacher. Marks has followed to be with Woolley, and not because of an overriding desire to be a teacher, but both women are intrigued by the idea of helping create a college for women that helped them learn more than just the “womanly arts” of household management and how to be a dutiful wife. Dean Welsh (Milena Sellers Phillips) is more straight-laced and concerned with this new curriculum or women’s rights and independent though, citing donors concerns that these ideas are less than a marriageable ideal to the new President Woolley.
Devoted student Pearl (Andrea Agosto) is headstrong, and eager to learn and apply these lessons, as well as being president of the secret fan girl group that ships Woolley and Marks’ relationship.
Marks lives in teachers quarters with Felicity (Maybelle Covington) her roommate and fellow teacher (philosophy a field at which Woolley makes no attempt to hide her disdain) as Woolley’s methods and her message take her further into the world and away from the college. Ultimately, Woolley and Marks find they have to navigate the balance of their relationship with the demands of each of their professions and ambitions.
This entire play hinges on the relationship between Woolley and Marks, and Glover and McMillian are fantastic as they depict the ups and downs that come with a long term relationships between two driven people.
Glover is excellent as Woolley, she is both a confident and caring character, who understands the world she lives in but can also see what more it can become. Her character is ardent but strategic, waiting for the right time to publicly join movements, which can sometimes exasperate her more passionate and impatient companion.
McMillian’s Marks is intelligent, well spoken, and her character growth from reluctant professor to passionate teacher and her sudden fervor for the suffragette movement feels believable. As does her frustration with some Wooley’s timing and decisions.
A lot of humor comes from the interactions of the traditional Dean, the fellow teacher, and the obsessively devoted student Pearl between Woolley and Marks, either together or individually. Agosto has a delightfully funny and passionately demonstrative monologue that fits obsessive fan girl behavior down to the last detail. Covington can do a lot to make the audience laugh with a few lines, or sometimes without even saying a word. Phillips is sympathetic as the Dean who must deal with both the increasingly irate donors and the increasingly determined Woolley.
Directed by Kim Straussberg, she keeps the play moving at a brisk pace; the one act covers 40 years in just 75 minutes, but knows when to let things linger for more impact. The play itself has many short scenes among longer ones which at times this makes the play feel more like a series of short scenes that never quite fully came together as a cohesive whole play.
BULL IN A CHINA SHOP is a funny and poignant love story that highlights the eternal struggles of commitment, ambition, and equality in a relationship. Playing at Diversionary Theatre through October 14th, go to www.diversionary.org for ticket and show time information.