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Examining the Wounds

Play explores woman's struggle with self-image.

May 29, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The bandages wrapped around society's wounds over the past few decades haven't changed things that much. According to playwright Joseph Lauinger, one wound still festering is the use of the female body as a token of commercial exchange.

For his play "Dirty Work," in its world premiere at Alliance Repertory Theatre in Burbank, Lauinger found inspiration in one of his pupils. A professor of dramatic literature at Sarah Lawrence College in New York state, Lauinger explains that one of his students dropped out for a while. When he found out what had happened to her, he realized her story held some universality, and set about filling out the dramatic framework that would make his point.

"It's based on what the student told me about her life and what I learned from her. It's very specific," he says of the play, which was a 1996 finalist in Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival.

The play's protagonist is a beautiful young woman who's undergoing drug rehab. Her boyfriend, a policeman, is a self-improver who goes to night school, and eventually the couple are invited to dinner by his professor. The professor is a failed poet whose only successes were books designed by her husband, a famed sculptor.

Of course, the sculptor asks the young woman to pose for him. The professor likewise decides to "save" the girl from her existence as a college dropout working as an exotic dancer at The Lusty Lad club.

The spotlight, of course, is on the girl.

"She's a beaten, beautiful woman," the playwright explains. "She was in the treatment center for drug addiction, after being an erotic dancer, and that kind of thing. She was a college girl who, as I say in the play, hasn't done very well in her double major of vodka and cocaine.

The play is a complicated emergence of revelations of who and what these people are. And it's about the way women's bodies are viewed in our time, our society, and how this woman used her body sort of mistakenly in order to survive and feed her addiction. She tries to come to an awareness of who and what she is."

Lauinger finds the web of personalities in the play intriguing, but particularly the personality of the professor, who views the young woman as a case to be solved. Hers is merely another form of objectification, Lauinger says: intellectual instead of physical. And the fact that the young woman does not want to be saved in this way, Lauinger says, is a part of her emancipation.

Lauinger is not a prude about his former student's choices. Her job in the bar was not necessarily a bad thing.

"You can't say it's the best way," he affirms. "It was a nexus of what you'd call her lack of self-esteem, her sense of herself as being worthless. She says at one point that all through her life the world was looking at her. She had to perform for it. That's a kind of paradigm for a beautiful woman."

Lauinger feels that often a beautiful woman is an accident waiting to happen, "because she becomes a focus for other people's fantasies--so much so that she begins to take them seriously. When they become a summation of herself, then she's in trouble."

Indeed, Lauinger says, pretty, smart girls like his character sometimes turn themselves into pretty, smart objects.

"And that's a dangerous thing for any human being to do, to think of themselves as a thing," he says. "Sure, she could become a movie actress. Or an exotic dancer. What's the difference?"

BE THERE

"Dirty Work," Alliance Repertory Company, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m., through June 21. $15. (213) 660-8587.

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