Little Fish Theatre is on a roll when it comes to plays centering on women. August saw the double bill of Rapture, Blister Burn, Burn and The How and the Why, two deeply resounding plays superbly performed by veteran actors. Now the company has doubled down with a world premiere of a new play by Arthur M. Jolly, a man who knows how to write drama (and comedy) featuring female characters. His play, A Gulag Mouse, with another predominately female cast, was a certified hit last summer at Sacred Fools. His new play, The Ithaca Ladies Read Medea, now in its world premiere performance at Little Fish, features a sterling cast of accomplished actors who know their craft.
The time is 1953 and suspected communist sympathizers are being summoned to Washington to be grilled by congress in one of the ugliest periods of American history. The net was wide and included, famously, prominent figures in Hollywood, as well as artists and writers and anybody who was ever known to be or thought to be sympathetic to communist ideals. Academics were not exempt. In The Ithaca Ladies Read Medea, five women hold their regularly scheduled play reading in the home of Alison Dunham (Kristin Carey in a steely performance), whose tenured, professor husband is under a cloud of suspicion. The play being read, Euripedes’ Medea, a searing tale of feminine revenge, was chosen by Alison, who harbors the notion that one of her friends might be responsible for implicating her husband.
Three of the women are actually summoned to testify before Congress. Senator Mundt (the commanding James Rice) questions the women from an imposing alcove above the stage and sits surveying the action in silence throughout the rest of play. Bridget Mayfield (Marti Hale) squirms under the questioning; Alison takes the Fifth; and Elsie Bishop (Mary-Margaret Lewis), in a richly humorous scene, comes across as a kindly woman who goes delightfully dotty when summoned to testify, utterly flummoxing the Senator.
Wheelchair bound and acerbic, Adelaide Houghton (Shirley Hatton), can be snippy and demanding. Young Marcie Mayfield (Kathryn Farren), Bridget’s niece, exhibits pretensions of snobbery, especially when dealing with Alison’s new maid, Katie O’Connor (Tara Donovan), who, needing the job, struggles to be proper.
Once more, Little Fish, along with designer Mitch Rossander, makes maximum use of it minimal space, easily representing an upscale living room with a rich flourishing of props by Allison Mamann that authentically shout out elegance with china, silver service, delicious looking cake and bottles of Compari, bourbon whiskey and sherry. Dianna Mann’s costumes are simply sumptuous and scream out 1950s sophistication. Lia Metz’ sound design boasts an amusing, satirical playlist and a cunning piece of opera deftly underscores a key bit of action.
Under the savvy direction of Danielle Ozymandias, Mr. Jolly’s play is in turns drawing room comedy, serious social satire, and bitter political drama. It is also utterly fascinating and perfectly absorbing. I suspect this play will have legs and I expect it will be picked up by many theatre companies looking to make the best use of their female actors. Meanwhile, to those who read this, hie thee down to San Pedro and see this fascinating show.
The Ithaca Ladies Read Medea runs through October 22 in repertory with What the Night is For, which opens on September 29 at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro.