by Gretchen Wirges
I had been perusing the playbill for 20th Century Blues while waiting for the show to begin. I noticed the image of four women, standing in solidarity, walking toward a camera. The sounds of Motown and 70’s anthems played in the background. As the lights rose on Invisible Theatre’s season-ending production, my feminist spirit was ready to see what playwright Susan Miller, and directors Susan Claassen and Fred Rodriguez had in store.
The play begins with Danny, a woman in her 60’s, delivering a TEDTalk about her photography. Just as we’re about to see a retrospective of photos of her closest confidants over the 40 year span of their friendship, the scene transitions to four months prior, when she and her friends Sil, Mac, and Gabby were gathering to take their final photo.
I felt myself exhale more and more as each woman entered the set, styled as a New York City loft. Designed by James Blair and Susan Claasen, the set looked polished and professional. It was believable, without being over the top.
Having met 40 years ago, the characters have an obvious history and chemistry that evolves with the play. While discussing the photos, the women take us on a journey through their relationships, and 40 years of politics and cultural struggle. They flit from Civil Rights to Transgender issues to the ERA to the Black Lives Matter movements. At first, I was frustrated that they covered too much, instead of spending more meaningful time on one issue. But what I realized is that these women are a cultural timeline personified. They take us on a journey through that timeline in a way that also allows us to see their triumphs, fears, and desires.
It’s not often we get to see four older, diverse female actors on stage together with meaningful, powerful dialogue. The women talk to each other with a directness that we rarely get to witness. They talk about sex and race and gender and their aging bodies with brutal honesty. One of the characters, Mac, played by To-ree-nee Wolf, is African American, and a lesbian. Mac often calls out the others for privilege and for asking her speak for “her people”. A few of the topics discussed made the audience cringe just a bit, which I absolutely loved. The playwright didn’t care if the honesty pushed buttons. In the time of #metoo and #timesup, we need to tell women’s stories without abandon or apology.
While some of the dialogue felt a bit rushed at times, I attribute that to being one of the very first performances. I was impressed with the cast as a whole. Molly McKasson (Bess) and Cole Potwardowski (Simon) were brief parts of the story, but gave us some touching moments. Geri Hooper Waram (Danny) delivered an earnest performance, and concludes the play with a powerfully delivered monologue. PJ Peavy (Sil) was able to transition deftly between her great comedic timing and the ability to ground the tender moments elegantly. Susan Cookie Baker (Gabby) gave the production a lightness with her humor and affable portrayal of this quirky character. And then we have Wolf (Mac), who in my opinion, was the standout of the show. Wolf took my breath away. She was acting down to her fingertips. Her physicality, facial expressions, and patience on stage was such a beautiful thing to watch. She was the one that truly made the production come alive with her obvious aura of heart and grounded acting.
I felt strong connections in the cast between the women, especially between Sil and Gabby, and between Danny and Mac. I think that as the performances evolve and the run of the show continues, the chemistry between all four women will deepen and provide even more believability to the relationships between the characters. One of my favorite moments was when all four women had a mini-dance party filled with laughter and a nod to their long history.
The importance of these friendships and their conversation throughout 20th Century Blues is expressed beautifully during one of my favorite moments of the play. Danny tells the women, “You’re rock and roll, the space launch, civil rights. The decades that chronicle the most sweeping changes in everything. Style. Music. Literature. You’re my sundial, my alphabet, my guide to better living. You’re my memorial to all that.”
This play isn’t perfect but I’m able to overlook the imperfections to see women of color, women over 50, women who are queer, women who are artists, women who are afraid of loss, women who are struggling with their bodies, women who are celebrating their bodies, and women who just plain love and support each other.
20th Century Blues is playing at Invisible Theatre now through May 5th. Tickets can be purchased online at www.invisibletheatre.com or by calling their box office at 882-9721.