What We’re Up Against
Through Sunday, Jan. 28
Peace University’s Leggett Theatre, Raleigh

You could tell the women in the audience had heard these rationalizations and runarounds before. One snorted audibly as Stu Wilson, the sexist managing architect at a prominent design firm, pontificated on women’s place in his field at the outset of Theresa Rebeck’s potent office drama, What We’re Up Against.

Holding court with a glass of scotch in one hand, Stu briefed his underling, Ben, on why he was denying Eliza, a bright young hire, any chance of doing meaningful work after five months on the job. “The experience isn’t there,” Stu said impatiently, to which an unimpressed voice from the audience replied, “Uh-huh.” Moments later, Stu’s one-word explanation of how Eliza is supposed to gain experience without being given work—”initiative”—elicited groans and dark laughter throughout the house.

Now playing to deserved full houses at Peace College in a Raleigh Little Theatre production, Rebeck’s drama is set in the early nineties, but it’s hardly a period piece. A post-show talkback on Friday revealed that only 2 percent of architects were women at the time when the play is set. Even more shocking, that proportion has barely improved, lingering at 18 percent today.

Still, What We’re Up Against needed something more than an indictment of persistent workplace sexism to keep it from being a game of theatrical whack-a-mole. Rebeck provides it in Eliza’s complex relationship with Janice (a solid Benji Taylor Jones), hired several years before. From her experience, Janice advises Eliza (a vital, volatile Samantha Corey) to patiently appease the male egos surrounding her. When she asks how long that approach took to work, Janice replies, “If you have to ask, you’re not being patient enough.”

Director Heather J. Strickland deftly probes such nuances on Elizabeth Newton’s black-and-white blueprint set. Rebeck explores the factors that can alienate the first women in a field from those who follow them and the dilemmas they all encounter when strategies to fight sexism must change. It’s easy to hiss the hypocrisy of Stu (an able Simon Kaplan), the convenient revisionism of Ben (a vexed Brian Westbrook), and the odious cluelessness of office newbie Weber (Dan Cullen). But when the women throw each other under the bus, the ethics of the struggle for gender equality are examined anew in this rewarding production.