Never to shy away from uncomfortable issues, The Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Avenue, Indianapolis, steps back into history for this adults-only scenario, dealing with anti-Semitism, gender-related issues and prejudices.
The Housewives of Mannheim, written by award winning Alan Brody, is based on a mock Johannes Vermeer painting of the same name. Depicting four women of the mid-1600s, it is actually a compilation of four of Vermeer’s true art pieces, A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, The Milkmaid, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and Mistress and Maid. The reflection of the painting can be seen on the white bed sheet used in the opening and ending sequences.
Set in the kitchen of a 1944 Brooklyn middle-class apartment, THOM’s cast consists of three housewives and a widow. May, the sunny I-do-everything-right housewife with a school-age son; Billie, the unhappily married, independent woman with a school-age son; Alice, the neighborhood nosy body with a holier-than-thou attitude and Sophie, the Jewish pianist who escaped from Europe to become a widow in America.
With the authentic set and the proper music playing in the background, the play sets about dealing with real life issues, as poignant and real today as they were in the 1940’s and even in the 1600’s as May finds out. It is a coming-into-awareness theme for the four women as they figure out their roles in the modern world, with and without husbands.
When May (Lauren Briggeman) opens up to decade-long friend Billie (Allison Moody) and to new neighbor Sophie (Martha Jacobs) that she feels different and not quite like her old self, they each react in a different way to the news.
Whereas Sophie begins to open up to the idea of friendship and trust again, willing to teach May about another world, Billie is resistant to May’s desire to become educated to a world outside of theirs.
Alice (Wendy Peace) comes in and out of the scenes to represent the neighborhood chorus of dislike for anyone deemed “different or foreign.” She is similar to the mothers who do not let their children play with the child unlike the others, to simply follow the crowd and never question the rules. Throughout time remaining clueless as to the beauty of something other than what she was brainwashed to believe.
Billie and May feud after an evening out and May becomes scared of her own new lifestyle choices. Lashing out and blaming Sophie and Billie, she tries to slip back into the mold of perfect housewife.
Unwilling to allow her to pretend, Sophie and Billie corner May and convince her that if she does not follow her heart, she is worse than those who are ignorant to the truth. May finds her inner strength and grows into a stronger woman with the help of her old and new friends.
Briggeman, Moody, Jacobs and Peace are each a strong actor and merge for a cast of well-defined characters who do not flinch during the pivoting points of the performance.
Although the storyline is tragically old; hatred, cruelty, betrayal and intolerance, it is well-written and brings out points which, unfortunately, are as relevant today as in prior generations, around the globe.
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