TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill, directed by Alisa Palmer (Soulpepper). At Young Centre (55 Mill). To August 4. $32-$56, student $28, rush $20, youth rush $5. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNN
Soulpepper's production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls is pretty solidly built. What the construction needs, though, is more steel. Or rather steeliness.
The landmark 1982 piece focuses on Marlene, a woman promoted to senior management at the employment agency Top Girls. On the surface, she's making the move with a great deal of confidence; what's underneath - and what the play investigates superbly - is the sacrifice necessary for her to advance in a patriarchal society.
Sound feminist? Yes, but the play is by no means just a political piece, for it explores the parent/child relationship, friendship and the difficulties of bonding in a proscriptive society. Filled with tart humour, irony and sharp character portraits, it's written in a nuanced, intentionally overlapping style that suggests chamber music in the way voices emerge and recede.
The first scene is the splashiest, a theatrical balancing act with Marlene (Megan Follows) hosting an elegant dinner party for historic and fictional women who celebrate her new position. What you don't realize until later is that each of them has a history that reflects on Marlene's situation; listen for ideas about children, lovers, sisters, control, service, property and fathers.
The last scene is the simplest, a confrontation between Marlene and her sib Joyce (Kelli Fox) in Joyce's utterly inelegant kitchen that lays bare history, hurt and two very different belief systems.
If the opening scene is the play's intellectual head, the last is its beating heart.
Director Alisa Palmer stages both expertly, the dinner party constantly surprising with its revelations and odd contrasts and the sisters' meeting with increasing bitterness and despair. Watch how Judith Bowden's set moves from a world of fantasy to one of reality.
Many of the episodes in between work, too, for the ensemble members all have a chance to shine.
Fox makes Joyce an angry but sympathetic woman who's been shat upon too many times; earlier, her spunky Victorian traveller is brusquely efficient. Diana Donnelly shows the emotional emptiness as one of Marlene's efficient co-workers, while Cara Pifko turns Patient Griselda into an innocent whose eyes are finally opened.
Robyn Stevan fills her Japanese courtesan's smile with sadness, and Ann-Marie MacDonald is funny and truthful as an ebullient pope and a prim office worker who craves upward mobility. Liisa Repo-Martell's a comic delight as the dinner's monosyllabic Dull Gret; she later offers vividly contrasting takes on Joyce's daughter at two points in her life.
Marlene's the hardest of the roles, and Follows captures some of her qualities but not others. The loss is there in the final scene, but she needs a brittle quality from the beginning that's not apparent.
She reveals aching emotional truth at the end, though. Beautifully orchestrated by Palmer and the actors, the last episode's sharp dramatic crackle doesn't mask the sisters' tragedy.