Theater Review: “Seneca Falls” – A History of Women’s Suffrage, Tongue-in-Cheek
By Melissa Rodman
The script is not a conventional history of women’s suffrage: dramatist Jean Ann Douglass mobilizes satire, sexuality, suffering, and sarcasm.
The Zoom reading via Play-PerView began with a caveat, talkback-style.
Jean Ann Douglass’s play Seneca Falls was designed for the stage but, like so many productions, needed to be adapted to pandemic times. “Our dream was to get a production together this year to honor the centennial [of women’s suffrage] on the upcoming election, but of course for many reasons that is not possible,” director Jess Chayes said, sharing the screen with Douglass. “What you’re about to see is a work in progress, as new plays are revised and refined in collaboration with producers, designers, and actors.”
With the 2020 introduction duly delivered, Seneca Falls proceeded to wind back the clock. Well, sort of. The play unspools along a timeline of vignettes — three disparate acts that take place around 1848, 1896, and 1913, as well as a coda, circa 1920 — that feature several fictionalized women of the suffrage movement (and, briefly, one guy). But the play is not a conventional history: Douglass mobilizes satire, sexuality, suffering, and sarcasm, serving up a tongue-in-cheek performance that underscores ongoing voter suppression and lampoons oppositions to suffrage.
Our first stop on the continuum is with Carrie (Kelly McAndrew) and Amelia (Susannah Flood) at the Seneca Falls convention. The pair have sneaked away from the hubbub. Soon they are interrupted by Frederick (John Zdrojeski), who makes unsolicited overtures about the value of gender equality, renouncing his manhood in the service of fetching them another round of ales. The banter and posturing is calculatedly silly. “Fetch them as an equal, then you’re asking me to owe you an ale run, and I’m not going to fetch you an ale, so do it as a man,” Carrie quips.
But, in the women’s fourth-wall-breaking monologues — both Carrie’s and Amelia’s in this act as well as others throughout the play — we hear from them directly about the reality behind the humor, the women’s motivations, grit, and creativity. Carrie describes how she would habitually dig in her heels, even when she was a child taking her time in the bathroom, disregarding her father’s demand that she hurry. And, in Amelia’s capacious imagination, a wifely Frederick mends her bloomers, perhaps a nod to the real Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who championed the eponymous garment.
Decades later, a new duo steers the second act. Eileen (Monique St. Cyr) and Margaret (Erin Wilhelmi) fantasize about riding the rails and working city jobs, a life that will mean leaving home and joining the suffrage movement. Given the Zoom bust-shots of the young women, however, we see that both wear simple shirts and sit in front of the same white-walled backgrounds. The dialogue must unfold for a bit before we can piece together the character particulars: Eileen’s wealth furnishes opportunities for mobility outside of Margaret’s working-class purview. Until Eileen’s race — she is Black, and Margaret is White — becomes a barrier to participation. “She [Margaret] could position herself as a fallen aristocrat, an orphaned damsel with a fancy dress looking for lodging in a new town… How easy. How easy for her,” a sherry-numbed Eileen confesses in a monologue. In contrast, Eileen says that,“she will only get to be a skeleton of a movement, the bones of society, and there will never be a day when she’ll be holding a sign for a cause, and it will help to not hurt.”
The third act pushes Eileen’s skeleton metaphor to a violent conclusion; we meet Mabel, a Black woman who not only marches for women’s suffrage but is bloodied during a protest (wearing white “helps the blood show up in photographs”), arrested, and force-fed in jail. Unlike the previous two acts, Mabel is alone on-screen; whoever she is speaking to is an imagined, unnamed, and sensuous caretaker of her wounds.
The final beats of the play both poke and prod at progress. In the coda, McAndrew returns both as Carrie and as Carrie’s granddaughter, a newly minted Harding voter, following her husband’s preference. (“This is a Harding family. Family first, and America first,” Carries granddaughter says, a chilling line affirmed with a flashing smile.) Indeed, each of the three acts and the coda are structured to jump about in time after their central exchange is delivered — exploring where the speakers have gone, what obstacles have arisen in their lives, and how they remember their initial reckonings — although the flattened Zoom tiles rendered each character’s temporality and location indistinguishable. I couldn’t help but wonder what staging choices playwright Douglass, director Chayes, and the creative team would have made if actors and audience were situated together in a three-dimensional space, and what movement, set design, full views of costuming, and lighting might have clarified or emphasized differently. At this point, call Seneca Falls a satire in progress.
Melissa Rodman writes on the arts, and her work has appeared in Public Books and The Harvard Crimson among others.