nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
January 30, 2010
Trifles, an incredibly complex (and first!) play written by Provincetown Players co-founder Susan Glaspell in 1916, functions as a dramatic re-envisioning of a trial Glaspell covered while working as a court reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. The woman on trial, a Mrs. Hassock, would years later inspire Glaspell's character Mrs. Minnie Wright, the wife (and killer?) of farmer and apparently less than cheerful Mr. Wright. When the play opens, two local men, along with their wives and a county sheriff, have arrived at the Wright home, a modest farmhouse that now looks to be the scene of a wife-on-husband murder. As the men swap time between solving the crime and belittling the difficult life faced by women on the range, the wives gather things to make Mrs. Wright's stay in jail more pleasant. As they do, various items—an erratically stitched quilt, a broken cage and dead canary—begin to paint for them a picture of the suffocating, abusive home life endured by the suspect. Choosing understanding and empathy over the upholding of the law, the two wives work to hide all that which may imply guilt for Mrs. Wright later on. Though short and rarely performed, Trifles is a master work, focused and challenging, and always a thrill to follow.
More than just an exciting work, Trifles is an important highlight in the evolution of our dramatic form. Glaspell wasn't the first to use the stage to explore how the system worked unfairly against women. Ibsen did this almost fifty years before with A Doll's House. But where Ibsen places the example of female disenfranchisement at center stage, Glaspell does the opposite, creating instead a work where the most important character (the charged wife, Mrs. Wright) is never seen. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this play, in the 1920s and today, is the way in which Glaspell builds a story around a heroine who is never seen. Through the actions of the two wives, we dig through Mrs. Wright's things, collecting clues to the crime while more importantly piecing together the fragments of what looked to be a very painful, lonely existence. By the final line, a very clear picture of Mrs. Wright is present; whether or not we see her is now of little matter. It is this extraordinary use of form that is most striking to me.
Unfortunately however, experimentation with form is exactly what troubles this production by The Theater of a Two-headed Calf. Under the direction of Brooke O'Harra (who clearly knows how to get good performances out of her actors), the play is broken up by long, seemingly meaningless pauses that push a normally 20-minute play to just over an hour. While these pauses do work to cut some of the melodrama that may creep in to any regular production of Trifles, I never felt as though they communicated whatever O'Harra believed that they should say. If anything, for example in the infamous canary scene, the slow, staccato reading of the lines actually worked to undercut the tension, sounding more like a bad TV movie than the most prominent lines in the play. The end result was that I heard people laughing in places Glaspell never intended to be funny.
The poorly executed form is, in the end, a shame, as it works to distract from some very strong, full performances. As the deep feeling, sympathetic Ms. Hale, Caitlin McDonough-Thayer is a standout, showing us, through her empathy, the strains and challenges faced by women like Minnie Wright. Her onstage husband, played here by Becca Blackwell, is equally impressive. There is a palpable feeling generated by this actor, a challenging feat that is rarely seen. The remaining cast members deserve good mentions too, providing worthy vessels for Glaspell's sharply drawn characterizations.
Two-headed Calf's Trifles does add one thing to this adaptation that hopefully will become the standard in any future production. The music, deftly executed by modern quartet Yarn/Wire, is sparse and arresting, adding a powerful eeriness to the play's already haunting nature. It's a choice in sound design that serves as a perfect example of an old play being added to through the process of adaptation.
Further aid is provided by the production's design team. Costumes by Lambert Flame are rustic and authentic to the story's country-farm spirit, yet executed with contemporary style and fit, an element that adds to the already visually stunning look of Two-headed Calf's Trifles. It is an overall visual that is further enhanced by Justin Townsend's lights, which here are warm, direct, and never without purpose. And grounding this play's location perfectly is Peter Ksander's set. Under Ksander, a beautifully staged, adequately appointed farmhouse is stripped of its walls, stealing away the darkened corners and cabinets that worked to hide the secret pain of the Wrights, while at the same time leaving an unobstructed view for the always present glare of the male characters, all of whom seem certain of the farm wife's guilt.
While often left out of the conversation in favor of her contemporary Eugene O'Neill, Glaspell's work here is worth seeing, even if the Two-headed Calf approach is a misstep. But with the acting they bring here, along with the terrific choices in sound and design, this production of Trifles offers up enough evidence to warrant excitement for what The Theatre of a Two-headed Calf does next.