Antaeus Theatre Company has found treasure in Cicely Hamilton’s 1908 play, Diana of Dobson’s, originally subtitled “A Romantic Comedy in Four Acts.” Some romance, which does not emerge until the second act, is there to be sure, but the overwhelming theme is an exposition of the gross economic and social sexism of the time, with the never-mentioned struggle for women’s suffrage and equality ever lurking in the background and, inevitably, in the minds of a modern audience in this Feminist era.
The play begins in the gas-lit women’s dormitory of Dobson’s Department store as women workers coming off a fourteen-hour shift prepare for bed. There is plenty of female banter as they unpin their hair and shed their work garments. Miss Smithers (Desirée Mee Jung) likes things to be proper. Kitty Brant (Erin Barnes) is engaged to be married, escaping the servitude of the store, and launching into marital servitude, or so it is suggested. Miss Jay (Kendra Chell) has hopes of a suitor. Miss Morton (Jazzlyn K. Luckett), takes a few nips from a little red flask. Four beds are more or less in order, but one is disheveled, and that belongs to Diana Massingberd (Abigail Marks in a dominating, tour de force performance), who is bitterly steamed over her situation and the gross unfairness that has the workers docked pay for absurd infractions. She receives a letter from a lawyer informing her that a distant relative has died and left her £300 (the equivalent of about $250,000 in current value according to a program note), a veritable fortune. With this money, she intends to live large and spend it all in a month doing all the things she has ever wanted—travel, buy clothes in Paris, and see the Swiss Alps.
Acts Two and Three are set in a ritzy hotel in Switzerland. The charismatic, parvenue Diana, sumptuously garbed, chats with the very wealthy who accept her as one of their own, as hilariously disciplined, never-acknowledged servants (whose movement is choreographed by Ms. Jung), hover and anticipate every need of the oblivious, witless affluent. Diana, adopting the guise of a widow as the newly minted “Mrs.” Massingberd, easily mingles with other guests. One such, Mrs. Cantelupe (Rhonda Aldrich) insinuates herself with Diana in hopes of getting her to marry her hopelessly inept nephew, Captain the Honorable Victor Bretherton (John Bobek in a spot-on performance), a character reminiscent of Freddy Eynsford-Hill from Shaw’s Pygmalion. Another suitor stunned by Diana’s intelligence and wit, department store owner and capitalist, Sir Jabez Grinley (the ever-powerful Tony Amendola), creates an interesting, tempting spark with the fake widow. Act Four does what a closing act needs to do.
Impeccably directed by Casey Stangl, this ensemble is top drawer. I need to point out that the delightful Lynn Milgrim as Mrs. Whyte-Fraser and the polar opposite character, Old Woman, is exquisite. Ben Atkinson, as a hyper-efficient hotel waiter and later as a London Bobby, is just as he should be. Though it may be hard to pull one’s eyes away from heated conflict, glance over at Jazzlyn K. Luckett as a hotel servant as sparks fly center stage. She does not pull focus, simply reacts. I guarantee you will smile.
The creative team includes scenic designer Nina Caussa, costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, lighting designer Karyn D. Lawrence, sound designer Jeff Gardner, props designer Katie Iannitello and accent coach Nike Doukas. The production stage manager is Heather Gonzalez.
Antaeus Theatre Company boasts a partner-cast ensemble, which means that there are two casts that perform the show, each with a different cast name culled from the script. The cast above is named The Kettles; the other cast is The Pots. This production is unusual in that Abigail Marks and John Bobek play their respective roles in every performance.
Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Diana of Dobson’s, a deliciously satisfying work of theatrical art, runs through June 3 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway in Glendale, CA 91205.