"The Yellow Wallpaper"gives the term chamber-drama an ironic twist. Adapted from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic American short story, it describes a Turn of the Century woman's allegedly therapeutic incarceration in an upstairs bedroom, as a cure for a "nervous disorder". In addition to being a chilling display of the gender oppression of the era, and the general dis-empowerment of women's lives, the original story creates an eerie atmosphere of desperation on the border of madness. It displays the foolish arrogance of repression as therapy, and it becomes a powerful metaphor for the sickness that results from the intolerable constraint of the creative self.
This adaptation, by Heather Newman (who also directs), is admirably faithful to the text of the story, but fails to generate the same sense of meaning larger than the specifics of the story. That is in spite of excellent performances and competent direction. Delivering all of the detail, and faithful as it is to the words of Gilman, it fails to capture the suggestive echoes and implications, and what is essentially an internal monologue simply has too little action to work as stage drama.
Mary Jane Gibson is a remarkable actress, with an intensity fully capable of sustaining the difficult and complex role of Charlotte. We see her self-doubt as a new mother (whose child is removed when she is interned), as a woman who never quite accepts the acceptable social limitations imposed on her, as a natural writer whose words on paper are her sanity and deliverance, and as a mind overtaken by the powerful images and imaginings that eventually overfill the vacuum of her existence. She is at the center of virtually every moment of the play, and her technical finesse is quite impressive. Occasionally she gives in to the easy "insanity" of wide-eyed madness, but when she is slightly more contained she is completely convincing.
Her husband, John, is a physician who completely accepts the "experimental" treatment of Dr. Weir, who believes that such "hysterical" women simply need to be kept in an environment where there is no stimulation, and no temptation toward creative expression. Stephen Loch plays the husband as a good and gentle man, which makes his weIl-meaning cruelty all the more interesting. His likeable manner and clear concern for his wife exonerates the treatment, and makes a sly argument for what "good men" can do to women who supposedly need cures for their desire to be strong and independent and creative. Unfortunately, as Dr. Weir, James Catechi is declamatory and stilted and neither believable nor effective. As a result, the "science" behind this treatment never reaIly has any strength, and the seduction of her husband into the celebrity of this experiment lacks believability. Much more effective is Annie Lareau as the doctor's sister, a woman who uses a calm and rational sense of decorum to mask her cruelty. Erin Knight plays an innocent and willing servant, a model of the proper role of women. Finally, Lisa Viertel plays Mary, Charlotte's best friend, and the strongest woman in the play. Her decency, and disobedience of unreasonable rules reinforces the critical role women have always played in their mutual support of each other.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" has important things to say about women, about society, and about the power of the creative soul to endure and transcend. While this play clearly states those things, it does not embody them, does not give them a distinct dramatic identity. When, at the end of the evening, the wallpaper and the imaginary women she sees imprisoned by it come to life and keep her company, we get some sense of how the entire evening might have become less literary and more theatrical. It is too little and too late, and in the end the play simply underscores how effective the story was, with its solitary voice speaking in its own solitary medium.
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