The Gibson Girl
Class, race, socio-economic opportunity, academic achievement: all worthy topics for drama--or, in the case of Kristen Greenidge’s The Gibson Girl, rich pickings for comedy.
Ruth (Michelle Dowd) has two daughters, Valerie and Winifred. Though they are sororal twins, the girls are very different in complexion, as well as in character and attitude: Winifred is obedient and studious, willing to play teacher’s right arm and drag her truant sister out of the girls’ restroom and back to class.
Valerie, on the other hand, is insouciant, willful, and unconcerned with the consequences of her antics. Setting up an office in the girls’ room (complete with posters of African American heroes like Langston Hughes and Macolm X), Valerie spends her time bopping to hip-hop and re-selling feminine hygiene products.
Despite their differences, the girls form a confederation of two in the face of Ruth’s erratic behavior: though professionally successful and well turned out, Ruth is emotionally stuck in place, having been left behind by her ex-husband, J.C.. (Stephen Key), a university professor specializing in the study of African-American women.
J.C. is paralleled by a white apartment building supervisor named Nelson (Greg Maraio), whose interest in African-American women is more than scholarly. Discussing the "roundness" of the "Nubian Queen," Nelson conducts interviews with himself (alternating between himself and an imaginary interlocutor named Charley). When his flights of praise for the female form reach critical mass, Nelson bursts into erotic dance with an uncontrollable ecstasy: it’s not clear whether he’s schizo or just really hot for African-American women, and in less skilled hands his reveries would be scary, but Greenidge gives Nelson just the right words, and Maraio gives those words just the right inflection, to make Nelson seem, if not harmless, then at least not overly dangerous.
Nelson likes to hang out in the laundry area, snoozing in a warm zone behind a drier where he has an African cedar bench set up. The warm air flowing over the wood carries a scent up to floor seven, where Nia (Valencia Hughes-Imani) lives. Scent is a major part of Greenidge’s theme: the wild essence of some sweet perfume on the wind that can carry back memories, in a Proustian flash, or maybe even bring back love and lovers from long ago. However, the scent of the cedar cannot restore to Nia something long-lost: for that, she needs her brother, Ladell (James Milord), who likes to find his wardrobe, and the occasional gift, while shopping at the Salvation Army.
As transgressive, and as funny, as Nelson’s antics may be, they are evenly matched by the rousing head-to-heads that Ladell and Thelma (Valerie Stephens) get into during Ladell’s shopping expeditions to tag sales and thrift stores. Whether scuffling over a jacket or flirting over a picture frame, the two get a dynamism going that is both menacing and sexy: that’s as it should be, because Ladell and Thelma are the crux upon which the deeply human mysteries of the play turn.
"The Gibson Girl" was a feminine idea from the opening years of the 20th century. She was a fantastical;, and phantasmagorical, combination of beauty, competence, elegance, and strength, an impossible standard by which crazed bachelors measured their ideal mates. (Which might explain why they were bachelors.) Greenidge looks back at that oddity with the understanding that the Gibson Girl has never really left us: she’s with us still, in a variety of colors and ethnicities, even a variety of genders. Ruth telling her psychic that "Nubian Queens" don’t do their own floors (and certainly don’t smell of Murphy’s Oil soap!) speaks to entire sections of libraries devoted to the subjects of race, gender, and class.
But while those profound subjects create a backdrop to the play, they don’t overwhelm or co-opt it. There’s a little (or a lot) of the Gibson Girl in each of these magnificent women, and she’s not always the calm and mannered, buttoned-up creature of yore. She’s bursting with flames of regret, guilt, and passion: flames that not even a good dousing with maple syrup can snuff. (See the play, and then you’ll understand: The Gibson Girl, live on sage, is its own best explanation.)
The script doesn’t explain everything, tie everything up, or develop every nuance. But it does create a slow, sweet tension, delivering a last-moment shock of recognition that carries like a current into the audience.
The play’s most haunting elements lie in the set design, which consists of several small environments separated by partitions or, in the center of the set, what looks like a violent rip tearing out a section of wall. Through this gap can be seen the sinuous shapes of trees, with definite female forms: a gorgeous visual metaphor for the play’s broadest themes. Painted on the floor are branches that lead the way to a sapling sprouting taps and buckets for gathering sap.
The set is designed by Jesse Beecher in perfect accord with the script, and the sound design by David Reiffel--razor sharp in timing--and lighting design by Mark Abby Van Derzee service the set design. The costumes, by Joy Adams, fit into the whole effortlessly, and director Victoria Marsh lets the whole production grow emotionally lush.
The Gibson Girl plays now through April 5 at Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, in Boston’s South End. Performance schedule: Wed. and Thurs. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 p.m.; Sun. at 2:00 p.m.
Tickets cost $30; $25 for seniors, and $18 for students (valid ID required). Sunday matinees: $25, with seniors paying $18 and students $15. "Wild Wednesday" cost $15 for all tickets.
Tickets available online at www.BostonTheatreScene.com, or via phone at 617-933-8600.
For more information, go to www.CompanyOne.org