KPFA theatre critic Richard Wolinsky reviews “Bull in a China Shop” by by Bryna Turner, at Aurora Theatre Company through December 8, 2019
When Mary Woolley became president of the all-woman Mount Holyoke College in 1900, she had a plan – to change the curriculum from one that focused on women as subservient to men, to one focused on actual education. She also took along, and hired, her partner Jeannette Marks, who became a professor at the school, and they lived openly together for a total of fifty five years. No closet for them.
Putting the two ideas together — Woolley as feminist reformer and Woolley as openly gay lover — playwright Bryna Turner crafted “Bull in a China Shop, starring the extraordinary Stacey Ross, playing at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley through December 8th.
Through a series of small scenes – vignettes ranging from full-on confrontations to monologues, we learn about Woolley’s opposition to suffrage and observe conflicts with her more radical lover, conflicts that are both political and emotional. In order to make the story play in a more contemporary fashion, the playwright updates the language and adds modern-day f-bombs.
Still, there’s an inherent problem. Woolley’s real-life story isn’t all that interesting, mostly because her life has no inherent story arc. Her job lasted decades; her relationship even longer. The production shows the relationship as interracial, but in real life both partners were white, and because two single women living together was common in those days, what feels like a dangerous situation wasn’t dangerous at all.
And once you remove those ubiquitous f-bombs and modern word usage and the gender difference, you’re left with an arc that resembles 1940s biopics. Bryna Turner does what she can, which is why the parts of Bull in a China Shop are greater than its whole. But there are no secrets to reveal and surprisingly little at stake. This problem is compounded by the decision to focus on the affair that almost breaks them up, rather than on the very real conflicts generated by the two lovers, one an activist the other a politician; or between the staunchly feminist Woolley and her very male and patriarchal board of directors. These elements still exist inside the play, but they never really take center stage.
Jasmine Milan Williams, as the student who has a thing for Jeannette, almost steals the show as the outrageous, and outrageously funny Pearl. But really, this is Stacey Ross’s show as Woolley. She’s simply riveting in a performance that is fascinating and nuanced, and a reminder that sometimes the best actors don’t go to New York or L.A. And while the play has its moments and it’s charms and its political bite, Stacey Ross is the real reason to see Bull in a China Shop.
Bull in a China Shop by Bryna Turner, directed by Dawn Monique Williams, plays at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley through December 8th. For more information, you can go to Aurora theatre.org. I’m Richard Wolinsky on Bay Area theatre for KPFA.