Age of Arousal

Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 13

There’s more than a whiff of paleontology to the words “our most recent ancestors,” which playwright Linda Griffiths uses to refer to the Victorians in an explanatory essay included in the published version of Age of Arousal. But before the end of that play’s first act, Griffiths’ gutsy, engagingand frequently poignant and funnytheatrical case history in the anthropology of gender and human sexuality has made its point. In so doing, this exploration of the women’s suffrage movementand the social conditions in 19th-century England that led to several schools of early feminist thought springing out of itavoids two of the major pitfalls such historical speculations are heir to.

For errant cultural anthropologists have occasionally understated the distance between the subject they’ve studied and their audience, in the rush to assert universality in some part of human experience. Similar techniques have just as inappropriately exoticized the other in different circumstances, claiming the distance between cultures or times are too great to admit genuine common ground or understanding.

Griffiths’ achievement in Age of Arousal is to show us, at once, both how “frighteningly contemporary,” in the author’s words, these Victorian proto-feminists are to our present worldview, and how distant they are at the same time. Moreover, the playwright’s penchant for a theatrical device she terms “thoughtspeak”having actors deliver their characters’ internal thoughts in a sort of verbal italics, alongside the ones they actually speakrepeatedly exposes both their characters’ loftiest aspirations and their basest human weaknesses. Since she does, Griffiths avoids another frequent foible in the theater of social conscienceour tendency to beatify our champions out of the realm of human experience.

Mary Barfoot, an ex-militant suffragist, candidly aspires to lift all women into the public realm through teaching them secretarial skills in the 1880s. But jealousy and loneliness do not place her above manipulating her protégé (and increasingly reluctant lover), Rhoda Nunn, or seeking something approaching worship from newer students. Barfoot’s brother, the suggestively named Everard, wrestles with laughably voiced thoughts of sexually “initiating” two characters. At the same time he is clearly struggling, on a deep level, to imagineand then live outa mutually emancipating relationship with an idealized “New Woman.”

The fact that several characters are on this same lookout characterizes the social work in process here more as evolutionary than revolutionary. Where at least two characters reject sexualityone albeit with considerably more difficulty than the otherto pursue their greatest self, a third embraces sex unreservedly, in an early echo of a major thread in third-wave feminism a century or more later.

Jane Hallstrom delivers a career-defining performance here as suffragette Mary Barfoot, while Nicole Quenelle carefully probes the double binds of desire and duty in yet another intricately developed character study. Lenore Field burns with Alice Madden’s spiritually feminist longings, while newcomer Kristin Elliott notably contemplates an entirely different vector of transformation as Monica. Actor Dana Marks’ and director Kevin Ewert’s interpretation of Virginia indulges in cheap laughs early on, but arguably leaves her character’s later transformation still a shade too hypothetical. Though no one should be shocked to learn that Jay O’Berski gets major comic mileage from his character’s predicament, he gives his character’s ultimate quest its needed gravity.

Griffiths’ achievement in an intellectually rigorous but never fusty script is to show us womenand one manreaching, through a series of conflicting human desires, dreams, beliefs and needs, to evolve themselves and, in doing, to help create a culture thatas one character who quotes Germaine Greer puts it”endows our differences with dignity and prestige.” Perhaps, to take a small liberty with Ewert’s program note, it is an evolution that “has still not quite happened yet.” Still, this look back to an earlier stage in our development is bracing, touchingand, ultimately, encouraging.