3 out of 4 Stars
The feminist pessimism of Penelope Skinner’s Linda could almost be read as a longwinded, tragic essay on Simone de Beauvoir’s famous observation that “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” This deprivation of substantial humanity is precisely what the play’s titular character has been unconsciously living out over her 55 years. In a twist of bitter irony, while her younger daughter Bridget (Caroline Phillips) envies the dangerous exploits and existential vicissitudes accorded to men like Hamlet and Lear, Linda’s life (given convincing form by the ever-watchable Kendra Thulin) more and more resembles that of a drowning Ophelia—a woman whose identity liquifies without external male definition. Directed by Robin Witt, the production of this 2015 British import by Steep Theater patiently skims along the script’s realist waters before submerging us beneath the tempestuous undercurrents of its protagonist’s mind.
When we first encounter Linda she’s a marketing exec who believes herself to have mounted the back of the corporate beast, taming its vicious masculinity and riding it up to the award-winning summit of her own success. Linda’s raising of her two daughters and her new ad campaign for an anti-aging cream converge around her unshakeable, and somewhat naïve, feminist philosophy: in a world prone to erase them, women should make themselves visible, confidently assert themselves, and take control of their own destinies. Yet as Skinner’s wit-laced tragedy inexorably dissolves every trace of solidity in Linda’s personal and professional life—by removing her every touchstone of masculine affirmation—she is forced to confess that she no longer feels herself to be “the protagonist of [her] own life.” It’s one of those moments of recognition used in dramatic literature since the Greeks, where the hero finally discovers a tragic flaw within themselves. Except in this case, the heroine discovers that she, in a sense, doesn’t really exist at all.
Skinner’s script, however, is not solely devoted to the downfall of its eponymous woman. Verging on subplot overload, she dramatizes a panoply of feminine pathologies festering under the male gaze—a gaze for which a woman’s existence and her appearance are one and the same. If Hamlet’s grandiose and purportedly “universal” question was "to be or not to be," Skinner’s women are compelled to ask of themselves, “To be seen or not to be seen?”
So while Bridget wants to play the part of a man in her school’s dramatic monologue recital, Linda’s 25-year-old daughter Alice (Destini Huston)—a revenge porn survivor—wants to hide from men by unsexing herself with a skunk-styled onesie. And under the farsightedness of her mother’s self-proclaimed feminist “revolution,” Alice’s scars (some of them self-inflicted) remain out of sight and out of mind. Stevie (Lucy Carapetyan), who sings in a rock band with Linda’s husband Neil (Peter Moore), finally feels seen by an older man and lets her Electra complex insinuate itself into Linda’s marriage. And then you have the shrewd and self-absorbed Amy (Rochelle Therrien) scheming for Linda’s position at work, whose get-ahead feminism requires a ruthless individualism and duplicity. From this labyrinth of womanly woes emerges a feminist landscape so dauntingly complex and in conflict with itself that there appears to be no escaping the poisonous root from which it sprouts.
Committed to making each woman’s unique compulsion for acknowledgement psychologically credible, Witt’s superb yet subtle direction relies heavily on great casting and her actors’ capacity for naturalist verisimilitude. Fortunately, they are all adequate to the task. Thulin embodies Linda’s shattered confidence with a self-contradictoriness propulsive enough to keep her several overlong monologues afloat. Therrien’s villainous Amy never defaults into pure nastiness; instead, she invests her rapaciousness with the insecurities of a beautiful and intelligent woman desperately aware of her own expiration date. Huston and Phillips, as Laura’s daughters, capture the quibbling discord between siblings coming to terms with their mother’s inconsistencies. And although Skinner’s men could have easily been made of straw, Peter Moore (Steep’s Artistic Director) thankfully turns out a sympathetic performance as Neil caught in the embarrassing fantasies of a midlife crisis.
That Witt directs her ensemble toward mundane authenticity not only prevents Skinner’s topical excesses from becoming overwrought and keeps any melodramatic tendencies at bay, but also grounds an increasingly metaphysical second act in hot-blooded motivations (which features reverberant thunder peals and crescendos of wind reminiscent of Lear’s psycho-storm, courtesy of Thomas Dixon’s sound design). All of this takes place within Joe Schermoly’s sleek modern set which doubles as a sexy corporate office and a bourgie (if not somewhat cold) abode. The imposing metal beams which frame the set serve as a reminder that although the women of the world may fashion their own homes and occupy places of influence, there remains a barely visible, ironclad perimeter that still hedges them in.
Linda runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through Aug. 18. A performance with audio description plays Sunday, Aug. 5 at 3pm and a performance with open captioning plays Sunday, Aug. 12 at 3pm. More information can be found at steeptheatre.com or by calling 773-649-3186.