What has been known up to now as the Pro Femina Theatre has undergone a name change--henceforth it is calling itself Horizons--but the group's orientation, theater from a woman's perspective, remains unaltered.
So, judging from "Women's Work," its first show under the new banner, does the group's performance style. The basic approach still consists of direct audience address, story theater techniques, and snippets of song and dance--all blended into a kind of living collage.
In the past, the performers often contributed the scripts as well, forging them in improvisational sessions on such topics as motherhood and abortion. This time, director Leslie Jacobson and company member Sarah Walton have turned to transcripts of interviews undertaken by the Federal Writers' Project of the WPA, which employed a number of out-of-work writers to record the thoughts and yearnings of women during the Depression. The script that has been assembled from these interviews is not without its banalities and irrelevancies, but in general it has a crisp no-nonsense authority that contrasts pleasantly with the bathetic, inward-looking meditations the troupe has offered in the past.
There is something poignant about these forgotten voices from the past, talking plainly and sometimes poetically about the hardships of their lives and the occasional sweet pleasures, about the horrendous conditions in the factories, the value of education, the heartaches of marriage and the joyful rigors of raising families, in which a dozen children were not so exceptional.
The women in "Women's Work" represent a fairly wide spectrum: secretaries, performers, factory workers, hairdressers, housewives, a fortune teller, a grocer's wife and a hooker, who observes succinctly, "The smartest just take it lying down. You last longest that way." A woman in a meat-packing company explains that it is preferable to work with sausage, as opposed to ham, "because there's no worms in sausage meat." Others talk about the ballot ("I voted a couple of times to please my husband, but I think it's wrong"), their spare time ("If it wasn't for the movies, I don't know what I'd do") and the ache in their feet ("It just pulls me by the heart"). In one of the most moving passages, a black woman recounts the delights of the vanishing quilting party. There's also a lovely tribute to the black entertainer Florence Mills, delivered by a star-struck young chorus girl.
The seven actresses in the company are called upon to play numerous roles apiece, and sing now and again to the guitar accompaniment provided by Joe Pipik. None, alas, is a trained singer, but the acting, if not always accomplished, has a fundamental sincerity that enhances the text. Joni Lee Jones and Susan Baronoff struck me as the most consistent talents onstage, but all of them have at least a moment or two when they shine. Some of Jacobson's direction smacks all too obviously of theater games (having one actress mime the monologue a second actress is delivering amounts to nothing more than useless embroidery). Jacobson serves the cause best when she keeps the staging simple and direct.
The evening's ultimate shortcoming, however, lies with the fact that "Women's Work," for all its passing truths, hasn't really made the transition from documentary to play. (I kept thinking the evening would make a great visual aid in the classroom, which tells you something.) Horizons certainly deserves credit for rescuing these lives from the archives. But these lives also deserve to be housed in more than a kaleidoscope.
"Women's Work" plays Thursday through Sunday at Grace Episcopal Church until Dec. 4.