I find the idea of seeing a new play with an all-female cast pretty exciting, the more so for being set in Alaska, a state frequently known (in America) for the huge male skew of its population. This could be a play in which the effects of being a hugely in demand minority – a situation which shits the balance of power – can be addressed directly! A play in which women can talk to each other about things that only women have to deal with! And being set during the gold rush era made In Skagway even more appetizing – I’d read a lot about the history of that period while living in Seattle, and the experience of women seemed like a ripe topic for dramatic exploration.
And then the play started and I had the sudden feeling that the writer had what she thought was a great idea – a play about Frankie (Angeline Ball), a showgirl who’s had a stroke – and just basically ran with it without bothering to do any more historical research than a quick trip through Wikipedia. The characters spoke in modern language, had modern morals, and seemed to have only been dipped in the late Victorian era. Where did this imaginary female prospector with her Indian lover come from? Given how few women made it to Alaska, it was clear to me that T-Belle (Kathy Rose O’Brian), “fresh from the claim,” was purely a figment of Karen Ardiff’s imagination. I could buy Frankie’s story – a music hall star who comes to Alaska to make some easy money (I made this back story up, it was not explained) – but how in the world did an Irish emigre wind up talking like she was from California? The whole thing snapped the tethers of believability from the very beginning: as we say in America, it jumped the shark and long before we ever got in the boat.
There were some good things about this show, though. Despite the horrible cognitive dissonances caused by the characters, the acting was uniformly engaging, and by the time we got to the scene where bad girl “Nelly the Pig” (Natasha Starkey) breaks into Frankie’s cabin, I was actually quite caught up in what was going to happen when an amoral ball of “looking out for number one” confronted her supposed friend, now crippled. This scene also allowed Frankie to start narrating what was going on in her perception of events as a person who’d had a stroke, which I thought was a bit oversimplified from what actual stroke victims perceive (the ones I’ve known have actually had a lot of their thought processes in good place despite loss of speaking capability), especially in regards to her inability to see the danger of what was happening around her. So again, I’ve got issues with how the writer handled the issues, and wonder to what extent she’s researched how strokes affect people – it felt to me like she wrote Frankie as she wanted her to be, not as the stroke would have made her, and this is against my theory of what makes compelling theater – characters who seems so real that THEY determine what happens to them. Ultimately, Frankie is a victim of bad writing, not a debilitating illness or bad life decisions. And to really care about her and the other women, she needs to have more reality than she was given.
That said, as acted, Ball did a good job of making Frankie a believable stroke victim; and I loved the way lighting designer Katharine Williams mirrored Frankie’s loss of self in the flickering of the Northern Lights through the clapboard slats of the cabin. But these were just a few nice touches in what was otherwise a grinding evening (that, by the way, still failed the Bechdel test as every one of the women winds up talking rather too much about men). Fortunately, it was about ninety minutes through with no interval, but it was still not my taste at all.
(This review is for a performance which took place on February 7th, 2014. It continues through March 1st. For a sharper review, please see Nick’s writeup.)