It's interesting to read in the program notes for "The Stick Wife" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center that playwright Darrah Cloud has studied photography. Her play is seen as if through a distorting lens, its images sharp but strangely contoured. She's forcing an effect to make a point.
She forces it to the point of monotony, but the message certainly gets across. It's criminal for a woman to "stand behind her man" when she's really cowering behind him. Stand behind yourself --and other women.
The time is 1963, the scene a white working-class neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala. (Pavel M. Dobrusky's design is appropriately discouraging.) It's a Sunday morning, and a black church across town is about to be fire-bombed, killing four little girls.
Ed's wife, Jessie (Anne Gee Byrd), doesn't know what's coming. But she does know that something's up from the way that her husband stomps out of the house without hardly stopping to insult her at all. (Gene Ross plays Ed--not a fun guy.)
Jessie doesn't know and doesn't want to know. She and her fellow wives (played by Chris Weatherhead and Camilla Carr) have a policy of closing their eyes to everything unpleasant in their lives, which includes just about everything. So they OD on Coke, sugar doughnuts and (Jessie's hang-up) doing the wash.
They tend to agree with their husbands (Richard Dean and Larry Drake) that women shouldn't just play dumb, but be dumb. Because the enemy is out there--Negroes, Jews, men in suits from the Justice Department. If the enemy should get to their husbands, too bad for them.
They're "nothing without a man" (the phrase comes up twice in the play). But when Jessie gets terrorized by the other husbands, under the guise of protecting the jailed Ed, she and her friends get a clearer picture of who the enemy really is.
The women go to the battlements--quite literally: Ed left some shotguns around--and enjoy a night of empowerment. But in the morning, things are back to normal, for Birmingham. This is the first American play in memory where "guess we'd better get back home" signals an unhappy ending.
The play was inspired by Cloud's reading that one of the Birmingham bombers actually was turned in by his wife. A realistic play on that theme might have been more useful than this attempt to make an absurdist-feminist myth of it, but a playwright has got to be allowed her methods.
And her method does allow a spooky sense of the midnight battle between men and women--with the men seen as marauding rapists and the women as wild gun-toting witches. The most effective moment of Roberta Levitow's production is the mood change at the end of the play, when the spell is over and the sense of everyday life resumes.
But Cloud's distorting lens is so strong that even everyday life here suggests the comings and goings in a home for the feeble-minded. The husbands behave in an incredibly demeaning way to the wives, and the wives do nothing but cringe and look at the floor. The women do, though, fight with one another at the drop of a hat--including a ludicrous spitting contest.
Message: Men have driven women crazy. Message received. But the demonstration gets boring. The three husbands in the play really come down to the same redneck brute, just as the three wives come down to the same abused slavey. One couple, deeply observed, would have done the work of the play with time left over.
Cloud also works for a kind of poetry here. "White people shine like a new dime in the sun," one of the women will say, swigging her Coke. It's a writer's line: The actor can't make it work in terms of the character. Similarly the opening image of the second act--Jessie's clotheslines full of red prom dresses--is a striking conceit, but is only barely viable within the context of the play.
But at one point Cloud hits dramatic gold. Jessie finds a certain reddish stain on Ed's coveralls after the bombing. She looks at it with an eye to cleaning it, but says sadly: "I don't think that will come out." There's tragedy, in one common phrase. Otherwise, "The Stick Wife" is too often an essay in distorted stick figures.
'THE STICK WIFE' Darrah Cloud's play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Roberta Levitow. Set, lighting and costume design by Pavel M. Dobrusky. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Dramaturge Mame Hunt. Stage manager Maria Schmidt. With Gene Ross, Anna Gee Byrd, Chris Weatherhead, Larry Drake, Camilla Carr, Richard Dean. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2. Closes March 1. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-5599.