By David Dixon
There are many real and fictional stories set in the past that are told in a modern style in an attempt to connect with 21st-century audiences. These types of books, shows, films and television programs are often able to draw parallels with today.
Diversionary Theatre’s production of the comedy “Bull in a China Shop” (currently in previews and officially opening on Sept. 22), tells a true story about a woman ahead of her time.
Bryna Turner’s script takes place over several decades in the life of Mary Woolley (Jo Anne Glover), an influential president of the Massachusetts women’s school Mount Holyoke College. Woolley advocated for gender equality, and was an advocate for the women’s suffrage movement, with many progressive views concerning women’s education.
Throughout the play, audiences get to witness a complicated relationship between Mary and Jeannette Marks (Tamara McMillian), a professor at the college. Their relationship, which lasted more than 40 years, was far from a fairy tale love affair.
Director Kim Strassburger finds the warts of relationships and depiction of commitment to be rare in the world of theater. “It really shows the ups and downs of long-term relationships,” she said. “That’s a universal concept for gay and straight audiences.”
Like Strassburger, Glover finds this aspect of the play fascinating. “I don’t feel like you often see portrayals of relationships that last a lifetime,” she said. “This show does a good job of displaying the ups and downs of a gay couple that couldn’t get married at that time period.”
Beyond the LGBTQ focus of the plot, Turner’s narrative has a lot to say about feminism in the early 20th century.
Woolley advocated for women to be independent thinkers. “She made efforts to make the school an intellectual institution, as opposed to a place to go to before you get married,” Glover said. “She was a force of nature.”
Rather than portraying an authentic depiction of the time period, the women onstage speak in contemporary dialogue and, just like the premiere production from the Lincoln Center Theater, Strassburger’s version features a diverse ensemble. The present-day style of speech, and the casting decisions, fit with the events that occur today at the University Heights venue.
“Women have the right to vote now, but there are still so many ways that women are overtly or covertly not treated equally,” Glover said. “It’s interesting to see a plot that occurs at a time when we were very overtly restricted.”
Glover, former development director for Moxie Theatre, believes that the issues brought up in this play are still relevant in today’s society. “Even having been a part of a feminist company for several years, it’s still fascinating to me that we are still having these discussions,” she said.
Having performers of different ethnicities helps reflect current-day theatergoers.
“Telling a story with more universal themes into a cast that looks more diverse is helpful to bringing to story to a wider audience,” Glover said. “It keeps the story from being pigeonholed into being just a story about white people from the 20th century.”
Strassburger thinks LGBTQ theatergoers will relate with the problems that Mary and Jeannette face. “It’s a very timely story for the community,” she said. “I believe they are going to connect with how the production shows the struggle of the LGBTQ community in determining their own fate and making change in spite of societal bias.”
During the 90-minute evening, Turner packs in a lot of information about the various decades featured in “Bull in a China Shop.” While it is not a simple story, Strassburger trusts that different audiences will be able to appreciate all the dramatic situations.
“She doesn’t talk down to the audience and you don’t need a Ph.D. in women’s studies to enjoy the play.”
“Bull in a China Shop” is running at Diversionary Theatre through Oct. 14. For tickets or more information, visit diversionary.org or call 619-220-0097.
—David Dixon is a freelance film and theater writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.