Double Trouble

First Ladies of Ramsey County
Great American History Theatre

Edith Stein
Frontier Theatre

"Let us now praise famous women": Natalie Moore of First Ladies of Ramsey County
"Let us now praise famous women": Natalie Moore of First Ladies of Ramsey County

The novelist J.F. Powers once remarked that the principal attraction of St. Paul was its central location between the prime meridian and the International Date Line. While Powers's evaluation may have been a bit ungenerous, it often seems that St. Paul's locus in the middle of the middle of nowhere is a point of civic pride. This is a city, after all, that clings desperately to a writer who disowned Minnesota when he was still in short pants, and that has as its mythological founder a cave-dwelling bootlegger whose primary claim to immortality was his striking resemblance to a pig. There is little doubt, then, that boosters for the Saintly City will embrace Dana Marie Gillespie's First Ladies of Ramsey County, a play that exists for no reason but to elegize the resourceful pioneers of yore.

From the outset First Ladies wears its good intentions on its sleeve. In a rough-and-ready encampment, designed for the Great American History Theatre by Sasha Thayer, a dainty young thing named Mary (Natalie Moore in deer-in-the-headlights mode) has arrived from relatively civilized St. Louis to meet her husband. Instead she comes across an Indian woman named Old Bets (Sharon M. Day), who is famous in the tiny frontier settlement for her entrepreneurial streak (she begs, steals, and sells) and her uneven temper (she chases a woman around with a hatchet for making fun of a new haircut).

After a bit of wrangling, the two women fall into an easy rapport, and the arc of Gillespie's script is set. Mary, who begins the play dressed like a porcelain doll and ends it barefoot and pregnant, will learn from Old Bets to live in harmony with nature and will become a better person for her troubles. By play's end Minnesota will indeed prove itself to be a snowbound Eden, where winter is the best eight months of the year and where all can live together in sweetness and light.

There is more, of course, but it is more of the same. A frustrated schoolmarm (Signe Albertson) appears periodically to scold Mary and cast disparaging glances at Old Bets. A mother and daughter (Claudia Wilkens and Rosalie Tenseth) ramble at length about the assorted hardships and triumphs of frontier life. There are men, too, but they do not speak and only show up in conversation when one of them dies. In consigning the men to silence, Gillespie is attempting to reinvigorate the forgotten personal histories of her women. She is, as the cliché goes, expunging the gendered prefix from "history."

Unfortunately, she also sacrifices the more important root. Which is to say that while there is a great deal of chattering in First Ladies, there is no story to speak of. The purportedly illustrious women cluck and quilt endlessly and manage to insert entire chunks of civic history into their dialogue. Yet even as a history lesson, First Ladies doesn't do much to pique interest in old St. Paul. For that, we may have to wait for Pig's Eye: The Play.

 

Arthur Giron's Edith Stein, now being produced by Frontier Theatre, is a more orthodox hagiography. The saint in question is a Jewish apostate and Carmelite nun who was murdered during the Holocaust, and whose canonization in October of last year opened a rift among religious historians. Because Stein was Jewish, many argue that her appropriation by the Catholic Church amounts to historical revisionism. The controversy about what some perceived as a Christianization of the Holocaust also revived long-buried rancor over the church's passivity--some say complicity--during the Nazi regime.

In a rather shapeless biography, Giron casts Stein (Rebecca Zalon) as a budding feminist and champion of liberation theology--implicitly supporting the church's contention that Stein's was an essentially Christian Weltanschauung. The diametrically opposed paganism of the Nazis is embodied by a nasty officer (Shad Cooper), who wants to start an amateur eugenics program with the nun as mother superior. The primary question is not, then, who Stein might actually have been or why she died, but whether she will sacrifice her virtue or proclaim her Jewishness and thereby ensure her martyrdom. It is not entirely unsatisfying as drama, but to reduce such a contentious bit of history to black and white does not do much to illuminate Stein or the schism her short, troubled life has inspired.

 
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