From her very first play, "Owners," and onward, British playwright Caryl Churchill has explored the historical and cultural roots behind such issues as the oppression of women, the disproportionate worship of capital, the loss of the individual and the lasting impact of imperialism. These themes abound in such subsequent works as "Top Girls," "Cloud Nine," "Far and Away," "Serious Money," and "A Number."
Cononecticut audiences now have a rare opportunity to look back at Churchill's inaugural 1972 work now being given an intelligent, insightful production at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through November 16. Under Evan Yionoulis's careful direction, this story of an ambitious businesswoman's single-minded determination to acquire a piece of property in North London that has attracted the interest of developers introduces many of the topics that will preoccupy Churchill in her playwriting while reflecting the early stages of her unique quirky style that will eventually evolve into nonlinear, time-hopping, dystopian situations.
"Owners" also reveals Churchill's brittle sense of humor that finds painful laughter in characters capable of thinking, saying and doing some very rude and bad things to attain selfish ends, resulting in such appalling behavior that a nervous guffaw is the only possible audience response. In this way "Owners" and specifically Younoulis's production hints at some of the anarchy contained in Joe Orton's plays, though Churchill's characters are deeper and the situations more tragic.
Early on, we meet Clegg, a frustrated restaurateur working as a butcher, and an efficient young man named Worsely, who are discussing Worsely's hard-driving boss and Clegg's emasculating wife, Marion, the hard-charging realtor with a take-no prisoners attitude. Both men have long-lasting love-hate relationships with Marion, who easily controls nearly every aspect of their lives. Worsely is painstakingly worshipful of his boss, yet as her power and ruthlessness have grown he's developed increasingly suicidal behavior. Clegg seems anxious to be free of Marion's domination, yet at the same time dreams of a quiet family life with children.
Marion's latest efforts include trying to buy a row house in anticipation of growing developer interest, but is thwarted by a tenant, Lisa, with a new baby, who cannot afford to move and doesn't want to. Complicating the situation is the baby's father, Alec, a dutiful but vacant man possessed of almost no emotion or opinion, willing to be swept along by whatever situation he encounters. Alec also happens to be a former lover of Marion's and she thinks she can easily attain the upper hand over this young couple. The play follows Marion's efforts to utilize her ownership over each of these characters--ultimately including the baby--in order to own the prized piece of property.
Yionoulis and her set designer Carmen Martinez meet the challenge of Churchill's multiple scene changes through a partially revolving set that can swiftly transport the audience from Clegg's shop to Lisa's apartment and onto Marion's office and Alec's mother's apartment, often incorporating a different backdrop to transform an existing set into another location. As a result, the evening seldom loses its momentum and maintains audience interest throughout. Benjamin Ehrenreich's wonderful lighting serves to highlight the environment and mood of each location, enhancing the detail of Lisa's aging wallpaper or adding to the pushy enthusiasm of Marion's workspace.
Brenda Meaney is quite accomplished in capturing the various aspects of Marion's ambition and growing ruthlessness, especially as her spoils of battle grow to include Lisa's baby in a diabolical effort to take advantage of Lisa's growing post-partum desperation. Meaney believably demonstrates her character's cunning and plotting in ways that can be sometimes subtle and sometimes blatantly over the top. She's also extremely comfortable in Seth Brodie's mock-mod costumes in which she seems to be having outlandish fun.
In a different manner, frequent Yale Rep actor Tommy Schrider chillingly imbues Alec with a seemingly stoical well of reaction-free living. Schrider has his character sit motionless and vacant beside his dying mother or stare unmovingly over his child's perambulator. At same time, Schrider makes it clear that the man is somehow responsible and even caring, but his blank looks and slow, deliberate, non-committal responses to questions and confrontations is both jarring and discomfiting. That he is able to take a genuinely noble action toward the end of the play is shocking for the character yet ultimately consistent with Schrider's performance.
Joby Earle offers a disturbingly appropriate performance as the suicide-prone and aptly-named Worsely, whether he's eagerly asking to borrow a chap's gun or recounting an episode on a rooftop when his would-be rescuer accidentally falls to his death and all he gets is a broken leg from a spill on the fire escape. Earle does allow us to glimpse the glimmer of a conscience inside his character that allows him to take some unexpected action before falling back into his terrified, obedient ways with his employer.
Sarah Manton is sublime as the antic and frantic Lisa who initially feels a tad out of her league against Marion but gradually learns to offer a resistance to which Marion is clearly unaccustomed. The actress can go from dispirited to possessively angry in seconds, conveying her character's swings from exhaustion to determination.
Anthony Cochrane limns the false pomposity and neutered bravura of the beleaguered Clegg, who, subsisting on his wife's generosity and abuse, can only take a modest stand against Marion in her ongoing manipulation of Lisa. Alex Trow is quite remarkable in two completely different roles, one, an upscale modern doting mother who hopes to rely on the hapless Lisa to babysit her daughter, and as Alec's dying mother, whose mumbles, screams, and movements are on-target and who engages in a lengthy hand-pantomime that says more about the tragedy of aging than several volumes of essays.
As previously mentioned, Bodie has provided a splendid range of frequently brightly colored outfits that cross the economic spectrum with a decidedly British early-1970's feel, some of which have to accommodate the increasing number of casts, splints and bandages that sprout up on Worsely with every new scene.
Churchill was clearly trying to deliver some important truths in her first crack at playwrighting and for the most part succeeded quite well. The reaction set her off on a career that has seen her create vivid and startling new works with even greater self-confidence. She continues to use her angry, biting sense of humor to uncover the hypocrisy of the privileged and autocratic and depict how even the most assured can fall prey to the temptations of rank and superiority. Yionoulis obviously understands and appreciates Churchill, as she has staged a production that delineates the issues that matter to the playwright in an entertaining and intriguing way.
"Owners" plays at Yale Rep through November 16. For information and tickets, call the box office at 203.432.1234 or visit the website at www.yalerep.org.
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