by Gail M. Burns, July 2005.

“Boston marriage” was a term used in the nineteenth-century to describe romantic friendships between women that included long-term cohabitation. These were not necessarily sexual relationships, nor were they considered immoral or perverted. Marriage was a very different institution then than it is now. Women had almost no rights within marriage and with no legal birth control were doomed to face with stark regularity the very real dangers of childbirth. A Boston marriage allowed women more independence and self-determination at a time when such things were hardly the norm. Henry James's 1886 novel The Bostonians, which features such a liaison, may have coined the term, or perhaps it was inspired by the well-known female couples, such as writers Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields, who made their homes in Boston.

In David Mamet’s popular 1999 play Boston Marriage, currently on the boards at the Miniature Theatre of Chester, Anna (Jennifer Rohn) and Claire (Gretchen Egolf) have a variation on such a relationship. Mamet is pretty clear that theirs is a sexual lesbian relationship rather than an escape from the strictures society placed on women married to men, and Anna and Claire don’t regularly cohabitate. And Mamet, perhaps because he himself is one of the depraved members of the male sex that Anna and Claire so openly abhor, seems unable to conceive that this relationship might have been viewed by the outside world as acceptable. In this case Anna and Claire are “living in sin” in every sense of the word, and that reality is Germaine to the plot of the play.

Mamet is famous for concocting his own variations on the English language, and here he has gone for an overly dramatic Victorian drawing room style, cut with just enough anachronistic punch to make it funny. Kind of like if Oscar Wilde wrote a Saturday Night Live skit. Since this is a summer filled with opportunities to attend Wilde’s plays, Boston Marriage makes an interesting contrast in its homage to the master.

The MTC production is directed by Michael Dowling, who studied acting with Mamet at NYU, and he has Rohn and Egolf act in a studied dramatic style. MTC Artistic Director Byam Stevens refers to Dowlings return to Chester to direct his mentor’s play as “a special event.” The set, designed by Vicki R. Davis, is pseudo-realistic. The hated chintz with which Anna has redecorated in a misguided effort to please Claire literally descends from the heavens and spills across the floor, falling down off the edge towards the audience, in an outrageously large swatch.

In this looking-glass world, Claire and Anna reunite after some time apart. During this separation, Anna has found a “protector”, a wealthy married man who she serves as mistress in return for his financial support. He has given her a handsome emerald necklace, a family heirloom, and, as a surprise to Claire, Anna has used some of her ill-gotten gains to redecorate her house.

Claire has a surprise of her own. She has fallen in love with a very young and sheltered woman, and she begs the jealous Anna to allow them to have a rendez-vous at Anna’s house that very afternoon. The girl’s arrival (she is never seen) throws Anna and Claire’s delicately balanced world topsy-turvy and the second half of the play is devoted to their hair-brained schemes, a la Lucy and Ethel, to rescue themselves and their new relationships.

Constantly interrupting Anna and Claire’s escapades is the Scottish-born (actually she is Orcadian, from the Orkney Islands) maid, Catherine (Amanda Byron), who Anna insists is Irish and is named Mary or Bridie or Nora or Martha. Whenever Catherine gets her attention Anna regales her with horrible stereotypes of rural Irish poverty and lectures about the Potato Famine. Catherine invariably bursts into tears, whether from Anna’s harangues or in reaction to her own inner demons, of which she has many, not the least of which is the unexpected loss of her virginity whilst bending over to put away the tea tray.

The plot is a little too drawn out. The first half moves a long briskly and the second half drags. I understand that the play was originally considerably shorter, possibly too short to be considered a plausible evening’s entertainment on Broadway or London’s West End, and was lengthened. It shows.

All three actresses are top notch. Rohn is all guile and selfishness as the ultimately triumphant Anna. Egolf is amusingly angular as the passion-sodden Claire. And Byron is just plain funny as the hapless Catherine, whose tears flow freely because her apron is too short to wipe them away. Costume designer Marija Djordjevic has designed beautiful and flattering and complementary faux Victorian garb for Rohn and Egolf, the former all in racy dark red and the latter in cool slate blue. And for Byron a dumpy little maid’s outfit with sensible shoes.

Scott Killian is listed as the composer, which I assume means he crafted the brief bits of music which introduce and close each Act of the play. It is a very good fit, overly loud in places and as highly strung and flamboyant as Anna and Claire’s relationship. What an interesting challenge for a composer. Dowling accompanies each with a little bit of dance – stylized for Anna at the beginning and fancy-free for Catherine at the end.

So Boston Marriage is not a perfect play, but it is a very good one penned by one of America’s foremost living playwrights. This production is handsome and well acted. I found it a very pleasant way to spend two hours in the theatre.

Boston Marriage runs through July 31 at the Miniature Theatre of Chester. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. The discussion of lesbianism is veiled with Victorian innuendo, but it is fairly frank and, in some places, lurid. If such things, or the occasional four-letter word, offend you, stay away from Boston Marriage. But what occurs on stage here is tame compared to your average PG-13 movie these days, so, if you are of an open mind on such matters, I wouldn’t hesitate to take older teens to this enjoyable and witty production. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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