Lisa Kron’s terrific new play at the Public Theatre (through November 21st) is about a woman with important ideas who’s not afraid to risk the wrath of her best friends to talk and talk about the things that matter most to her. Ellen (played by the wondrous Marin Ireland) cares deeply about the world. She believes in democracy and has ideas about how it could be improved. She’s a woman with a mission and an analysis, so although she spends her share of time shouting at Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, she’s also writes and speaks around the country about the tax structure and its loopholes and how policies that seem benign can promote the growth of unsightly strip malls—for only one example.
The central conflict of In the Wake is between the private and the public, realms too often (still) mutually exclusive for women. Part of Kron’s argument is that Ellen should be able to have a rich, supportive private life while her public persona as a writer and intellectual grows ever more visible, busy, and intense. Her friends create the kinship structure she calls her “family,” even though she and her male partner, Danny (Michael Chernus), are unmarried, she isn’t sure she wants children, and is closest to Danny’s sister, Kayla (Susan Pourfar), and her female partner, Laurie (Danielle Skraastad). But even this nouveau family can’t tolerate her desire to “have it all,” so Ellen is forced to choose among her multiple desires and her numerous ambitions. [Spoiler alert!] Sadly, she’s left punishingly alone at the play’s end.
Danny, Kayla, and Laurie provide Ellen’s central domestic nest, set in an East Village apartment decorated in early graduate student (smartly designed by David Korins). Jerry-rigged, rickety bookcases line the walls, stuffed with old textbooks, new novels, and both the Merck Manual and the DSM-IV, as though the characters are determined to self-diagnose their issues. But the two women—Judy and Amy—who find the most purchase on Kron’s cool assessment of relationships and offer Ellen alternative life choices are situated outside the cozy coupled-ness of Ellen and Danny’s apartment.
Judy, an old (and older, at 56-years to Ellen’s 30-something) friend, is an oddball curmudgeon, socially inept and disinterested in conventionally female or feminine behavior. Judy (Deirdre O’Connell, terrific in the mordant role) chooses to be an aid worker in Africa but won’t vote in American elections because she doesn’t believe that democracy works. Visiting Ellen’s apartment, she flees to the fire escape to smoke, unable to tolerate the placid domesticity of Ellen’s friends.
Judy is reluctant to mother her biracial niece, Tessa (Miriam F. Glover), who wants Judy to parent her when Judy’s sister gets mired in domestic abuse and drugs. But mothering doesn’t interest Judy and she refuses to pretend otherwise. In one of the play’s most painful scenes, Kayla and Laurie take Tessa out shopping, and the girl returns with a t-shirt she bought especially for Judy. Judy can’t even arrange her face in an obligatory expression of parental pleasure, and has to be reminded to take the gift with her when she and Tessa leave.
In Judy, Kron offers a trenchant rejoinder to those who presume mothering is women’s birthright. Judy makes an effective life otherwise and elsewhere, lending what little she can to the process of peace-keeping in the world’s most troubled and contentious zones. Judy is flawed and not proud of it, but she’s not ashamed of it, either. Conventional standards—whether conservative and heteronormative or progressive and lesbian—leave her cold. Instead, she’s sober about her prospects, an extraordinary realist with clear and appropriately low expectations of herself and of her country.
In the Wake views Judy with some ambivalence. Ellen’s family of choice dislikes her for all the quirks Ellen finds compelling, and Kayla and Laurie implicitly judge her for not parenting Tessa as they would. On the other hand, Kron manages a sharp critique of Kayla and Laurie’s wrong-headed liberal presumptions. The lesbians find themselves shocked that when Tessa complains that her DC school friends criticize her politics, it turns out the girl is a fan of then-President Bush. Kayla and Laurie are eager to support what they assume will be Tessa’s social radicalism, and neither of them knows quite how to handle a tween-aged African American Republican.
Over the play’s decade or so span, Ellen becomes a respected writer and commentator who travels frequently, speaking on panels at high-profile progressive events. At one of her conferences, she reconnects with Amy (Jenny Bacon), a lesbian filmmaker who’s the older sister of a childhood friend. The two women spend hours talking after a conference panel and, as we watch, begin to fall in love.
The scene of their mutual attraction is lovely and nicely handled by director Leigh Silverman and the performers. The women sit in chairs downstage simply talking to one another in warm light sculpted beautifully by designer Alexander V. Nichols. As they discuss ideas and art, sexual electricity begins to course between them, and the yearning shyness of seduction draws them together. Ellen surprises herself by responding physically to Amy’s intensity of being and listening. Amy admits that she’s all “feeling,” while Ellen describes herself as someone who lives in her head. Opposites attract, as Ellen luxuriates in the warm and new pleasure of being with her lover.
At first, Danny graciously accommodates Ellen’s desire for Amy, even though Kayla and Laurie are furious with her for hurting him. As Ellen tries to maintain both relationships, her lesbian friends become more and more condemnatory. Kron depicts the lesbian couple as conservative here; Kayla and Laurie disapprove of Ellen’s affair, not because she’s seeing a woman but because they believe in fidelity, monogamy, and marriage, values Ellen expressly doesn’t share. They wield their assimilationist politics like a club, refusing to condone Ellen’s desire for something more.
Instead of applauding her eagerness to experience a large and capacious life, they shut her down, close her out, and finally, leave her. Kayla and Laurie decide to move to Madison, to pursue graduate school and children of their own. Even Danny, who’s an empathetic and talented public elementary school teacher, gets worn down by Ellen’s love of the liminal and the frenetic energy of her disrupted life. He forces her to choose between him and Amy, and although she chooses him, she never fully returns to their emotional partnership. Chernus subtly transforms Danny from a happy, complacent teddy bear into a disappointed, bitter guy, bemused in spite of himself that he’s not walking away with the girl.
Ireland’s performance as Ellen reminds me of Joe Mantello’s turn as Louis in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. She talks fast, her words tumbling over one another, her ideas rushing to get out, to be tested, to be challenged or defended. Ireland makes every bit of Ellen’s bracingly articulate political analysis sing, in a heart-felt, thoughtful interrogation of what contemporary politics mean. The play moves from Bush’s theft of the 2000 election, through his second election, to the war in Iraq and the assassination of Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Newspaper headlines (in projections by Nichols) play over the proscenium between scenes, locating us in time as history hurtles by. The news chants a constant litany of everything democracy can’t fix. But Ellen keeps writing and speaking, unabashed in her belief that democracy can indeed work.
The play truly wants to be about the inextricability of the public and the private, to underline that individual choices like Ellen’s are indeed the stuff of which political change is made. The program includes a wonderful quote from James Baldwin:
Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements much begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.
But exactly Ellen’s determination that her choices do have a larger meaning leaves her punished. Ellen grieves when she loses both Amy and Danny because she wasn’t prepared for loss. She aspires in ways she believes her country teaches her to, and when she can't have it all, she says she feels “ruined.” Ireland plays Ellen’s grief (especially when she learns Amy has started a new relationship) with palpable, wrenching empathy.
At the same time, as Ellen painfully explores her new depth of feeling, I wondered why it’s always the thinking women who have to be transformed, to be made to feel excruciating emotions that are supposed to teach them something about themselves. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone who feels deeply was transformed into someone who thinks intensely for a change? Or if the two options weren’t so polarized? This is another way in which it seems smart women aren't allowed to have "it all."
Ironically, Judy, the realist, ends as the play’s hero. Judy’s word sticks. The accumulation of newspaper headlines indicates that democracy doesn’t really work, just as she insists, and all of Ellen’s flying around giving talks on prestigious panels and writing for all the right publications doesn’t seem to change anything. Kron, via Judy, suggests the hopelessness of a certain kind of political analysis that doesn’t radically address the fact that entrenched power structures in the U.S. are white, male, middle-class, and straight, and that voting doesn’t really seem to change that (witness the recent mid-term elections).
When Ellen is astonished by the emotional free-fall in which she finds herself at the play’s end, Judy remarks that Ellen’s surprise comes from the privilege of expecting never to fall at all. She gently accuses her friend of particularly American sentiments that would have no purchase in parts of the world where people don’t presume fairness as a given. Judy calls out Ellen’s middle-class- and U.S.-based blind spots.
In fact, blind spots provide the play’s central trope, as Ellen often steps out of the narrative action to comment, in retrospect, on what she failed to see as the events unfolded. Ireland handles these moments of earnest, rueful direct address beautifully. In the tradition of Kron’s solo work in 2.5 Minute Ride and Well (her “solo performance with some other people in it,” which was Tony-nominated on Broadway in 2006 and also directed by Silverman), the monologues are self-excoriations of Ellen’s inability to recognize her own privilege.
But exactly her shock at the partialness of her self-understandings makes Ellen a bit difficult to empathize with as a character. She enters into her romantic, sexual, and political engagements with great good will but also with the tunnel-visioned voraciousness of someone hungry to have as many meaningful experiences as she can. She says she forces herself to be brave in the world because she doesn’t want to die confronting a catalogue of things she didn’t have the courage to do.
Whether or not Ellen is truly “likable” is one of the play’s conundrums, especially for a spectator who doesn’t want to condemn her for wanting two sexual partners of different genders, and doesn’t want to damn her for not wanting to marry either one of them, and doesn’t want to belittle her for her overarching commitment to social change.
Many male playwrights create male characters that have multiple partners and don’t want to settle down as they pursue their noble professional and personal ambitions. But female characters in the same positions too often die from cancer, leave jobs they’re very good at to have uncompromised emotional lives, or give up their personal relationships to have satisfying careers. That’s what makes plays like Wit and Third and Time Stands Still so unnerving—they punish their accomplished female characters for being brilliant or sexy or unwilling to settle down and domesticate themselves.
Likewise, with In the Wake, why should Ellen be judged for pursuing her personal and professional desires? Ireland makes her galvanizing, even when the character’s behavior is self-absorbed and narcissistic, despite her best intentions. And Kron steers clear of pat realist psychologizing that would explain Ellen’s behavior through some emotional deficit like a father complex or a remote mother. In the Wake instead insists that Ellen’s choices are conscious and purposeful, fueled by emotional and intellectual desire.
I wish Ellen wasn't left alone at the play's end. But I love the daring of Kron’s play, her willingness to work through ideas about how political and personal change happens. I love that her characters respond to events in unexpected ways. And Ellen’s bravery, strength of spirit, intelligence of mind, and depth of feeling make her one of the most complex women characters I’ve encountered onstage all year. I love that even though her choices might leave turbulence in their wake, she refuses to take the easy way through her life.
In the Wake ends on a melancholy note, but in the hands of such a talented writer, director, and cast, I can’t help but find its optimism. The program includes a poem by Mary Oliver called “The Uses of Sorrow”:
(in my sleep I dreamed
Someone I loved once gave
a box full of
It took me years to
that, this too, was a
So is this play.
The Feminist Spectator