My favorite theater critic has always been Addison DeWitt, that bitchy, manipulative, sharp-clawed writer in All About Eve. Played as if etched with acid by George Sanders, he gets many of Joseph L. Mankiewicz' finest zingers. In one scene, in reaction to his latest conquest Miss Casswell (a pillowy Marilyn Monroe) having botched an audition, he suggests perhaps television is where she should look for advancement. Do they have auditions, she asks. He adds dryly, “That's all television is, my dear, nothing but auditions.”
I thought of DeWitt while watching Stages' latest online production, Rebecca Gilman's A Woman of the World. This one-woman show, graced by a magnetic performance from Sally Edmundson, one of our theater's best and brightest, seems to veer a little too close to the small screen.
Filmed, not zoomed, by director Seth Gordon and video designer Peter Ton, we're watching something intimate turned even smaller. Akin to the archaic TV style of the '50s sitcoms – the three-camera setup – we're never far away from Edmundson. She stares at us straight ahead in closeup, she stares at us from the left, she stares at us from the right. She's supposed to be giving a group lecture about her intimate knowledge of Emily Dickenson, but the unvaried camera placement and oblique editing add nothing to the drama packed into the life of Mabel Loomis Todd, whose own story this turns out to be.
Behind her is the rustic cabin with garish red lace curtains and assorted nautical-themed and naturalist knickknacks on the wall. Loomis, who idolized her Hog Island retreat and every creature and flower on it, would very likely have surrounded her home with items such as these, appropriately arranged by set designer Stefan Azizi.
It's 1931, near the end of her life, but as played by Edmundson, Todd is very much alive and very much in control. Imperious and regal, with that sea-deep contralto, she's a looming presence, and it would be lovely to see her occasionally in medium shot, or maybe walking around. She's stuck in that embroidered chair for 83 minutes. It's tiring.
She begins grandly, dropping names and talking to her unseen daughter Millicent who hides in the back of the group. Her father knew Thoreau; Dickinson was a dear friend; her husband David Todd was a prominent astronomer; Emily's brother Austin was her lover; Austin's wife Sue was a bitch. Gradually, as she reminisces, more of the truth emerges. Her saucy little scene on coitus interruptus with David is misplaced and totally at odds with even this woman of the world for 1931. The menage á quatre with David, Austin, Mabel, and cousin Cora is a barn burner. She and Austin never married, but she wore his ring on one hand, and her husband's ring on the other. Mabel likes to shock.
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Although Mabel, with Thomas Higginston, was the first to publish the posthumous poems of Dickinson, she never met the reclusive author, but would play the piano at Emily's home while the “myth of Amherst” listened from her upstairs bedroom, then surreptitiously have a liaison with Austin in the parlor. Later, Emily would send out thank-you posies with a poem attached. After her death when the voluminous amount of her work was discovered, Emily's sister Vinnie asked Mabel to edit them. Mabel took an ax, deleting Dickinson's queer punctuation and slash marks, and editing out Sue's name. But the volume sold and Dickinson's long-last reputation as a major American poet began in earnest.
At the time, a “woman of the world” was a veiled insult, a polite euphemism for an adulteress or an extremely liberated woman. Mabel was all that, as she tells us. She lived off the reflected glow of Dickinson and supported herself quite well by her lecture circuit, but her island retreat was her true passion, and perhaps greatest legacy. It still exists as The Todd Wildlife Sanctuary and home to the Audubon Camp and Seabird Rescue Program, under the auspices of the National Audubon Society.
In her day, she was one hell of a woman. Gilman (Pulitizer Prize nominee for The Glory of Living; author of Luna Gale and Spinning into Butter) doesn't quite fill in all the gaps, but Edmundson is there to do that with a particular inflection, maybe a raised brow, or a wave of the hand. No audition necessary.
A Woman of the World continues through September 20. Register online at stagestheatre.com. Admission is free.