There’s a scene in the “Mad Men” episode ‘Ladies Room’ that’s brutal in its simplicity. Two frustrated, male advertising executives sit in leather-clad chairs clutching brandy glasses. “What do women want?” one asks the other. His friend scoffs and takes a beat before replying: “Who cares?”
And there it is. Six words of male dialogue to neatly sum up a patriarchal imperative: Unless their desires sell lipstick or skinny margarita mix, what real man truly cares what women want at all?
This is the smarmy challenge that women constantly face both personally and professionally. We often have to fight to prove that our aspirations, frustrations, and flaws are just as varied, important, and intense as those of the men in our lives. Even in local theater, women’s voices are too rarely prioritized. An analysis done by Brent Englar, Dramatists Guild’s regional representative for Baltimore, followed 33 Baltimore-area theater companies over 122 productions from 2016 to 2017. Of those 122 plays, 40 (33 percent) were directed by women, and only 34 (28 percent) written by women. Not too fucking impressive in terms of gender parity.
In light of Englar’s study, Rapid Lemon’s production of Audrey Cefaly’s short play collection “Love is a Blue Tick Hound and Other Remedies for the Common Ache,” staged at Baltimore Theatre Project as a part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival (which is based in Washington, D.C. but includes programming in Baltimore through Rapid Lemon, Center Stage, and The Strand), takes on more significance. Not only is the playwright a woman, but so are six of the eight actors in the show, and all of the pieces (“Hound” is a compilation of four short plays) are women-directed.
Not surprisingly, then, the female characters here feel more real than they typically do in more frequently produced, male-authored plays. They talk and act like people you might actually know, not a monolith of rabid high-heel consumers binge-watching old episodes of “Sex in the City.” Cefaly is an Alabamian native, and considers herself a “Southern playwright.” Her roots are evident in her work. Cefaly’s women are from different walks of life: They range from second daters in upscale apartments to waitresses in cheap Italian restaurants to beer-swilling fisherwomen. They’re just ordinary, in a way I rarely see on stage. And in their very averageness, Cefaly uncovers truth, humor, and an aching desire to be heard.
Most successful of the four short plays are ‘Fin and Euba’ and ‘The Gulf.’ ‘Fin and Euba’ finds two women (played by Carolyn Koch and Lauren Erica Jackson) sitting on lawn chairs in a yard littered with tacky ornaments. It quickly becomes obvious that Fin is projecting her upwardly mobile ambitions onto her unwilling friend, hoping that by unsticking Euba, she might unstick herself. Euba is the perfect example of the type of complexity with which Cefaly imbues her female characters. She clearly hates her life, but she isn’t willing to take a chance on a risk, nor is she able to envision herself in a better situation. The hard part is that she might be right: Dreams are great, but don’t always lead to a happy ending. Koch and Jackson use a lot of physical shorthand (best friends talk so much more with their eyes) to good effect. Their catharsis feels earned.
Cefaly uses this structure again in ‘The Gulf,’ but this time, the two women, Kendra and Betty (Donna Ibale and Aladrian C. Wetzel), are lovers. Betty pushes Kendra, a sewage plant worker, to better herself, not realizing that “better” for Betty isn’t the same as “better” for Kendra. Director Betse Lyons mines a lot of drama out of the claustrophobic environment of a small fishing boat, building the tension to a breaking point. Betty and Kendra’s conflict and eventual resolution is satisfying because we believe their relationship 100 percent.
The other two pieces, ‘Clean’ and ‘Stuck,’ are a little less thematically interesting. ‘Clean’ centers around Lina (Lyons, in a terrific, affecting performance), a waitress who feels invisible, but is seen more clearly than she imagines by an Italian dishwasher named Roberto (Justin Johnson). ‘Stuck,’ a parable on Internet dating and authenticity, is the most laugh-out-loud of the pieces, mostly due to the excellent comic timing of Mike Smith and Lee Conderacci.
“What do women want?” is an unanswerable question. Women are people, and people’s wants and needs are wildly different. Cefaly’s work shines brightest when it illuminates the complex and rich relationships between women, when it acknowledges that, whatever it is that women want, we will need each other to get there. “God never gives us more than we can handle,” says Fin to her best friend in ‘Fin and Euba.’ She considers, then quickly amends: “Sometimes it’s just a little bit more than we can handle. But that’s why we have each other.”
“Love is a Blue Tick Hound” continues Jan. 18-21 at Baltimore Theatre Project.