Through Aug. 14
Women’s Theatre Festival
@ Umstead Park United Church of Christ
I am an adult survivor of domestic violence. I still have the pistol my father used one night to threaten my mother’s life and my own. I keep that firearm, which is now unable to menace or injure anyone else, because people regularly doubt, discount, and second-guess accounts of domestic abuse. Evidence, I’ve learned, is important. The gun was in his hand.
I can vouch for the authenticity of the damage depicted in Carol Torian’s one-act, The Traditionalists, part of the Women’s Theatre Festival’s first evening of fully-staged shows. I can also attest to actor Douglas Lally’s emotional velocity as unstable husband Nicholas in Pam McClure’s first outing as a director. It fully justifies a trigger warning for those who have experienced similar cruelty.
As this two-hander unfolds, a dinner table gradually becomes a gantlet—a staging ground for Nicholas’s contempt for and uncurbed domination of his wife, Tenille (Elaine Quagliata), and a checkpoint to inspect and interrogate her compliance with previous directives. An opening attempt at small talk launches Nicholas’s disproportionate response—a detailed, unsatisfactory performance evaluation of Tenille’s housekeeping, cooking, child-rearing, and sexual duties.
As we watch, Nicholas morphs from husband to drill instructor to jailor, reinforcing Tenille’s economic, social, and eventually physical incarceration, listening closely in order to quash any wayward hint of self-definition or self-worth.
Torian has clearly written a truly harrowing scene. But at this point, it is not a play. Her script effectively places us in an abusive relationship in an upper-middle-class household. But drama confronts us with the truth of a life in a change—and change is what is lacking at this stage in The Traditionalists’ development.
The single scene here pressurizes matters as Nicholas limits Tenille’s agency and mobility throughout their meal. As a strategy for a first act, that could presage further plot developments and an actual dramatic arc. However, Torian leaves things here before either can develop; when she convinces us that such abuse has gone on for years in this house, we never see why this night is different from all other nights.
Plus, in depicting only the abuse in an abusive relationship, Torian neglects the other, crucial dynamics that have formed the bond and continue to reinforce it, making it much harder for either party to break away. In their absence, her characters remain relatively two-dimensional—demonized or traumatized—with scant evidence to support either’s long-term commitment, and little beyond one-sided physical coercion compelling either to stay.
More development could expand and deepen the playwright’s exploration of this relationship. But when the fundamental situation and relationship dynamic is clearly stated, and then remains unchallenged and unchanged, The Traditionalists presents and leaves us with the status quo instead of drama.