Uncommon Women gives insight into second-wave feminism

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • February 12, 2015

Maureen Shea, head of the theater studies program at Emerson, has a straightforward reason for deciding to direct Uncommon Women, and Others: “Because it has a lot of women.”

This past Thursday through Sunday, Emerson Stage put on five performances of Uncommon Women in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre. Uncommon Women, written in 1975, opens and closes with a rendezvous in a New York restaurant with five graduates of Mount Holyoke College, a women’s liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. The bulk of the play showcases the women six years earlier during their senior year in 1972, along with two other seniors, a freshman, and their dormitory housemother.

Taking place during the peak of second-wave feminism, the women in the play are uncertain about their futures. They talk about diaphragms and romance novels, menstrual blood and Joni Mitchell, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath—but most prominently, they talk about their anxieties as women about joining the working world. One character says that she “envies men, envies their confidence, envies their options.” Another “refuses to live down to expectations.”

After the matinee show on Saturday, students Daniel Begin and Alicia Bettano, both junior performing arts majors, led an informal Q&A session with the director, stage manager, and cast of Uncommon Women

The production’s participants used the session to talk about how the play relates to their own lives. They discussed the realism of their characters, their experiences playing college students on the verge of graduation, and how different life is for women today, four decades after the setting of the play.

At the event, Shea said that the play’s emphasis on women is particularly relevant to Emerson’s theater department.

“We have more actresses [at Emerson] than actors,” said Shea. “I was curious about how contemporary women… would feel about this play.” 

Josephine Cooper, who played Muffet di Nicola in the play, recalled when Shea brought in some interviews with Uncommon Women’s playwright Wendy Wasserstein to help the cast understand her motivation behind writing writing the play.

“Wendy felt like she didn’t see herself onstage very often,” said Cooper, a junior performing arts major. “That really sunk in for me, because I realized that I feel the same way.” 

Wasserstein, who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1971, was the first woman to win a Tony Award for Best Play for her 1988 work The Heidi Chronicles. Uncommon Women was first produced by Wasserstein in 1975 for her master’s thesis at the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama. 

Cooper said she thinks female characters in theater are often based on inauthentic archetypes, unrelatable to most women. She said that the characters in Uncommon Women reflect reality, a sentiment echoed by other cast members.

“Friends that have come to see the show feel that they’re seeing experiences and people on stage that they relate to,” said Cooper.

For senior Misha Lambert, who played Holly Kaplan, the honesty in the play was a struggle at times. 

“There have been moments where we’ve come up against this play because it is so close to home and it really hurts,” said Lambert, a performing arts major. “But I think that’s the beauty of this play.”

Several participants said the the play helped assuage their anxieties about their upcoming graduations from Emerson, including senior Hayley Moir, who played Rita Altabel, and senior Rachel Shaw, the stage manager.

For Shaw, her role as stage manager for Uncommon Women was her last curricular assignment at Emerson. She said watching the show come together was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

“You’re seeing all of these things that you’re feeling and all your anxieties reflected in these women,” said Shaw. “I think doing this project has been really important for me to embrace those feelings and realize that they’re not the end of the world.”

Participants also discussed how the relationships between their characters might be portrayed differently today. Since the play was published, Lambert said that the language has changed for women in the LGBTQ community. And sophomore Abbey May, who played Kate Quinn, and junior Ryanna Dunn, who played Leilah, agreed something was unspoken between their characters.

“Spoiler alert: Leilah has feelings for Kate,” said May.

Moir and sophomore Olivia Medley, who plays Suzie Friend, said they were taken aback by how early some of the women in the play were getting married.

“I’m 20, and Suzie is 21... and I cannot even fathom being engaged,” said Medley. “Not only that, but I don’t feel any need to be engaged. I do want to get married in the future, but... I don’t feel like I need to be married to still be successful, and that’s a big difference.”

Cooper said that although there have been many strides for women since the ’70s, there is still room for improvement.

 “Women still earn a lower wage than men,” said Cooper. “I hope that this play is done in twenty years and… that they can name even more strides than I can.”