AGE OF AROUSAL by Linda Griffiths, directed by Maja Ardal, with Clare Coulter, Sarah Dodd, Maggie Huculak, Ellen-Ray Hennessy, Gemma James-Smith and Dylan Smith. Presented by Nightwood in association with Factory (125 Bathurst). Previews tonight (Thursday, November 22), opens Friday (November 23) and runs to December 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 12:30 pm, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $25-$36, Sunday pwyc, preview $12. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
These days, given the number of preteen computer whizzes and the use of text messaging, there's nothing special about being able to type. But for a group of London women in the 1880s, Remington typewriter skills were a means to raise their economic and social status.
Linda Griffiths's Age Of Arousal drops the audience into the middle of a secretarial school run by ex-militant suffragist Mary and her lover, Rhoda. Three temperamentally different maiden sisters, the Maddens, join them. But it's Mary's cousin Everard who proves to be the fox in this sexual and political henhouse.
"It was a time of a huge population imbalance, with British women outnumbering men," says Gemma James-Smith, who plays Monica, the youngest Madden.
"And that difference was a force behind the suffrage movement," adds Maggie Huculak, spinster Alice Madden. "There was a group called 'the odd women,' which included people like Mary and Rhoda, who had the energy, drive and leisure to campaign for change because they weren't raising a family."
The Odd Women is, in fact, the title of the 1893 George Gissing novel that inspired Griffiths's play.
"Alice, the eldest Madden, is clearly the patriarch, having taken over from the father who defined their lives," continues Huculak, a magnetic performer whose recent work includes Half Life and 4:48 Psychosis.
"What's fascinating for me is that the word 'mother' is absent in this family. We've all tried to define her place and stature in the lives of the three sisters; two other girls have died. I think the deceased father was a god to Alice, a man who kept the intelligent sisters genteel but uneducated as to how to earn a living.
"The audience meets the three when they're starving and afraid to touch the money that he's left them."
The Maddens' future hope resides in Monica. If she marries well, they'll have a comfortable future. And while Alice is ashamed of sex, Monica starts to learn its pleasures.
"The discovery that sexuality is part of being a woman opens doors for her, though arguably it gets out of control," notes James-Smith, a National Theatre School grad who impressed audiences in Kate Lynch's Go Forth And Multiply. "While she wants to share this discovery with others in her life, she doesn't want to be considered a slut."
And she's not the only one with sexual desires. Rhoda, despite her involvement with Mary, is also drawn to Everard.
"He's the man who comes into the world of these women and stirs the pot," adds James-Smith. "When a man enters a room with any group of women, something changes in the air. Monica has a physical, hormonal reaction to Everard, but Rhoda's involvement is of a different sort."
It's not by chance that Alice never speaks with Everard.
"There's only a look at the end of one scene," smiles Huculak. "It's clear that the chaste Alice doesn't play with men; they don't figure in her world. Her notion of spinsterhood is both beautiful and sad.
"She speaks of herself as 'heart-shriekingly lonely.' Alice doesn't yearn as other women do, but is capable of fearsome feats of loving. That split between desiring and loving makes her a unique female character, one I've never encountered before."
One of the striking elements of Griffiths's play - which won a Betty Award in Calgary last year - is the use of what she calls thought-speak, a device where characters deliver their thoughts in an unedited fashion, the action coming to a halt while they pour out their internal (and unheard) musings in poetic, heightened language.
James-Smith, who was also in the Calgary cast, remembers that the device was a worry for the actors.
"We thought audiences wouldn't understand what was happening, but people got a handle on the device quickly."
Does Age Of Arousal work as a period piece or a modern one?
"The rhythms and constrictions of the age are necessary to draw the dilemmas of the characters," says Huculak. "I don't think there is such a thing as a period piece, just theatre that's boring and dusty and doesn't speak to its audience. Good theatre, like this play, speaks to viewers whenever it's set."