Although Zona Gale won a Pulitzer Prize for "Miss Lulu Bett," this 1920 play about a good-hearted drudge who unwittingly marries a bigamist has long since fallen into obscurity.
If you believe in drama for drama's sake, this is not a case of theatrical injustice crying out to be remedied. "Miss Lulu Bett" is a contrived and fairly irksome study of some petty small-town folks exercising their prejudices about women.
If, however, you are able to look upon drama purely as sociology, bearing witness to other times and other mores, then "Miss Lulu Bett" is not devoid of interest. Revived by Horizons, the Georgetown-based theater group that likes to bring us works examining women's state in the world, Gale's play serves as a feminist barometer of sorts.
For middle-aged Lulu Bett (Carole Myers), marriage to Ninnian Deacon (Brian D. Hemmingsen) offers an escape from the abode of her sister and brother-in-law, in which she is appreciated only as full-time housekeeper and cook. Barely a week after her marriage, however, she discovers that her husband already has a wife. True, that first wife disappeared years ago, but nobody seems to know whether she's alive or dead. So Lulu Bett comes home to ponder her plight and, her relatives devoutly hope, to resume her cheerless household duties.
Gale wrote two endings to the play. The original conclusion, which has Lulu rebelling and heading out into the wide world to find herself, was judged too downbeat by 1920s theatergoers. So Gale cooked up a second, far more conventional ending, in which the spinster gets her man after all. Horizons performs both of them and they're what is most absorbing about a none-too-fascinating evening. Characters crucial to one ending play next to no role in the second, and while some of the lines stay the same, the emphases change completely.
The double denouements also say something about our changing tastes. Lulu Bett's bid for emancipation, the rejected conclusion, is far more appealing to our contemporary sensibilities than the romantic ending deemed so satisfying in 1920. We have turned our thinking around 180 degrees in 65 years, which represents progress, but doesn't make Gale's play any better.
George Kelley, in fact, gave us far more enduring comedies ("The Torch Bearers," "The Show Off" and "Daisy Mayme") about the narrow-mindedness of America in the 1920s. As Gale depicts them and the Horizons cast plays them, such characters as the overbearing husband (Nick Olcott), his helpess wife (Mary Ellen Nester), their brattish daughters (Maureen Burke and Patricia Tulli) and the crusty grandmother (Gay Hammerman) are two-dimensional creatures whose tiny souls are all too quickly explored. And for all Myers' desires to give her warmth and dignity, Miss Lulu Bett is a sad sack. Horizons' production, directed by Leslie B. Jacobson, tries for vintage charm, but the sets are on the skimpy side and the ill-fitting costumes, some of them trailing long threads, appear to have been thrown together. As restorations go, the work is not exactly painstaking. But is painstaking effort really merited? "Miss Lulu Bett" is little more than a curiosity piece. Reading it would probably be just as instructive as seeing it and would also create far less dust.