Perhaps it’s the long, encumbering clothes and hats worn by suffragettes or the stiff, unsmiling poses of them in photographs, but the women who fought for the vote always look stodgy and straitlaced, not like the revolutionaries they actually were. Thank goodness for playwright Bryna Turner, whose Bull in a China Shop refreshingly brings into focus the staunch feminist and pioneer of women’s higher education, Mary Woolley, the first female president of Mount Holyoke College (1901-1937), and her longstanding partner, English Professor Jeannette Marks.
Woolley’s persona is whisked into 21st-century vivacity by Turner’s writing, director Dawn Monique Williams’ skill in her Aurora debut, and the beautiful acting of both Stacy Ross (The Year of Magical Thinking, Leni) as Woolley and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Jeannette Marks (Temple, Breakfast With Mugabe). Woolley’s life with Marks is assessed and compressed in this striking combination of a biography, love story, comedy, and history lesson rolled into an all-too-brief intermission-less, 90-minute production.
And therein lies Bull in a China Shop’s limitation, if I may call it that. It is impossible to revisit almost 40 years of personal life (and world history, for that matter) in one-and-one-half hours without compromising what is the crux of any play — the strength of its story. So in this astute production, there are myriad short scenes, each occurring at the next salient point in Woolley’s career and her life with Marks. I wish the author would have left out some of the historical data points so she could concentrate more on the loving and evolving personal union of the two women, since this is where Bull in a China Shop shines the brightest.
As the historical basis for the play, Turner relied on the many letters between the life partners to replicate their sometimes patchy but always tender relationship, which she combined with vivid and sometimes humorous contemporary language to loosen the characters from their stereotypical stuffy suffragette yokes. I stopped counting the f-word after seven utterances in the first few scenes of the production, in what may have been part of the playwright’s misguided attempt to convince the audience that they were hot-blooded, passionate people. We could see that for ourselves without the street language.
Woolley strenuously battled the trustees of Mount Holyoke to turn what had been a seminary and school for wives into an exceptional 20th-ccentury educational institution. Her adversaries over the years are well-personified by Mia Tagano (Splendour) as Dean Welsh. Yet the trustees seemed to tolerate Woolley’s love affair with Marks, and eventually, the women lived together in the President’s House. At long last, Woolley didn’t have to climb up three flights of stairs to kiss Marks goodnight. The younger Marks’ popularity with students is enthusiastically represented by the adoring Pearl, especially her love poem (outstanding Jasmine Milan Williams). Marks eventually became head of the English department.
In a letter from Woolley to Marks, Woolley comments on swans and how “elegant they look above the surface of the water while down below they must be churning relentlessly to go against such a strong current while maintaining their poise.” This heartfelt recitation by Stacy Ross exquisitely sums up the essence of Bull in a China Shop — the difficult struggle many women have trying to fit into an intolerant society while preserving their personal quintessence and dignity.