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Edwardian charmer packs 21st century punch

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At the turn of the last century, women writers often lent their pens to social causes, especially the need for greater economic equality. From the poems of Alice Duer Miller to the plays of Cicely Hamilton, the ladies often had more in common with writers of today than their gentlemen counterparts.

When Karen Lund read Hamilton’s 1908 play “Diana of Dobson’s,” she found a work that “felt so current. It could be about our times, Occupy Wall Street, and the fight for the $15 minimum wage.”

In the play, currently running at Taproot Theatre, Diana (Helen Harvester) struggles to stay off the street in a succession of low-paying “shopgirl” positions. A minor windfall enables her to run off and become a member of the “ornamental classes” for a spell. Romantic and comedic complications ensue as Diana fires off a number of zingers about bosses who hold down the costs for customers by gouging their workers out of a living wage.

In directing the play, Lund worked to keep both the social message and the comedic froth nicely mixed.

“One of the biggest challenge is conveying the manners and morals of the time,” said Lund, who encouraged her cast to watch period dramas like “Mr. Selfridge” to get a feel for Diana’s world. “When a gentleman in this play says ‘you’re adventurous’ to Diana, it’s like saying ‘you’re a tramp or a golddigger.’ Other little social slights, things that would register very clearly to the original audience (in 1908), have to be a little broader to make it register with our audience. The actors are loving it and having a great time with it.”

As was the audience during a recent Saturday afternoon matinee. Chuckles greeted Diana’s quick put-downs and the trials of the hapless, upper-class Victor (Ian Bond), who decides to prove himself man enough to get a job.

“Our season as a whole is all about the stranger in our midst, and how do we embrace the stranger,” said Lund. “In this case, Diana is the stranger, the shopgirl moving into the upper class. Then Victor gets to walk in the shoes of the lower class, and it really opens their eyes to each other.”

As for Diana’s struggles to convince others that a decent day’s work deserves a decent day’s wages, Lund hopes that she’s not just preaching to the choir.

“This play actually did a lot to change the way that working class women were treated at the turn of the century. It’s intriguing that a piece of theater had such impact to change society,” she pointed out. “I hope our audience will be able to sit back, laugh, enjoy themselves, and still see people need help finding a way out of poverty.”

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“Diana of Dobson’s” plays at the Taproot Theatre through June 14. For more information, see the company’s website.

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