Last week’s election results were a staunch reminder that, unfortunately, male politicians will continue to have some pull over the lives of women. An imbalance in health care rights, pay, educational opportunities, civil rights, and more continue to be at the forefront in the fight for women’s rights. It’s a battle that’s been raging far longer than a few decades.
“Women’s independence, self-realization, self-actualization—however you want to term it—has been an issue for hundreds (thousands?) of years,” says local playwright Susan Steadman, an active feminist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a current card-carrying member of National Organization of Women. “While women have advanced quite a bit, we are still not earning as much as men in similar jobs. But that’s just one piece of this mangled puzzle. I shudder at all the results of the elections; I believe that issues of women’s rights are going to be batted around in NC and most of the rest of the country. When there is repression, it is always experienced by women, more so than men in our society.
Steadman, the executive director of the local writing group Port City Playwrights, will be addressing some of these matters in her debut of “What Doesn’t Kill Me” at Cape Fear Playhouse, opening this weekend. Each of three one-acts deals with female-centered issues via dark comedy. After meeting actress and director Nicole Farmer two years ago, and realizing their shared passion for theatre, Steadman asked Farmer to take on the project with her.
“Nicole is playwright-sensitive—believe me, not all directors are—and a natural teacher,” Steadman boasts. “What impresses me is her attention to detail and sensitivity to language.”
Farmer jumped at the chance to work with Steadman, who has written over 20 plays and directed nearly 70 herself. Farmer connects with Steadman’s writing profoundly— “as a woman, as a mother, and as a wife,” Farmer clarifies. “I cannot wait to hear audience laughter, as they look back at women in the late 1980s. A great deal has changed in the world, and yet very little has changed in women’s roles in society. The laughter is often bitter sweet, but we must maintain the ability to laugh at ourselves if we are to survive at all.”
“What Doesn’t Kill Me” comprises work that Steadman wrote in the mid-’80s to early-’90s. She took content from her own experiences and friends’ stories about their relationships in love, family and friendship. “Filling Spaces” follows a woman who’s suffering from extreme rejection, and has a need to take back her life and gain self-confidence.
“Rhonda has been repeatedly shut down by her husband, her closest friends, and even her therapist,” Steadman explains. “The title resonates from the events of the play: filling the mouth with food, filling the air with talk, filling a vacant position on the faculty of the community college where Rhonda teaches. Rhonda finds no respite in sleep, for her dreams reflect her struggles to stand up for herself. She finally resorts to an unconventional but deeply symbolic solution, which quiets the others who populate her world and allows her the opportunity to speak without interruption.”
“Tuesdays We Go to Playgroup” comes directly from Steadman’s familial situation while rearing her 2-year-old daughter. During a visit to a playgroup, she heard constant complaints about the lack of help that fathers offered in childcare.
“Interestingly, several people (including a man) have mentioned recently they could really relate to the situation,” Steadman notes, “and that things really hadn’t changed much.”
The play centers on a group of mothers and children searching for a fourth mother-and-child member for their group. Once they meet Carol and her son, Tommy, a new turn of experiences take place. “Well-hidden animosity and competition take over their interaction,” Steadman says. “Each of the moms speak to the audience, revealing hopes, longings, disgust, and more.”
“Moving Day,” though not completely biographical, hints at Steadman’s numerous change of homes, from Ohio to New Jersey to Texas to Georgia, between 1984 and 1991, all with a husband and two kids in tow. Its central character, Nola, is a very organized person with a multitude of checkoff lists. She’s quite extreme in finding freedom and control over her own life.
“Nola is persistent in teaching her techniques and philosophies to the audience,” Steadman explains. “She has separated her belongings—or has she compartmentalized her life?—into three piles: trash, take and leave. Her lectures are interrupted by the movers, who uncover unexpected objects, such as a bloody knife, while cleaning out house.”
Staging three different shows has its own set of challenges for Farmer. A main one: set design. Yet, the Julliard graduate has approached it with an “all hands on deck” mentality, with the help of production stage manager Heather Dodd Bevels, rehearsal stage manager Catherine Brumm, tech manager Joe Smith (who also acts in two of the plays), light designer Audrey McCrummen, and prop coordinator/costumer David Kratzer.
“The set is very minimal; it is simply a fluid space for the action to occur,” Farmer notes. “This whole project has really been a collaborative affair, with Susan and I working around the clock on nothing else for quite some time.”
Music from the ‘80s will transport the audience, and some 400-plus props will help round out place and time. “The show is aptly named,” Farmer quips. “‘What Doesn’t Kill Me’ has made me stronger. And I mean figuratively and literally—strong mind, stronger body from lifting and schlepping. Hey, I even lost 10 pounds in the process; what woman doesn’t love that?”
Steadman—who graduated from Hobart and William Smith college in English, NYU in educational theatre, Louisiana State University with a Ph.D, and Texas Women’s University with an MLS in library and information science—is happy to employ a lot of female actors in this show, too. Farmer cast Elaine Nalee in “Moving Day,” Kara Lashley in “Tuesdays We Go to Playgroup” and Carla Stanley in “Filling Spaces.”
“I want to continue the exploration of all that women can be,” Steadman says. “I enjoy stepping into the complications and the sheer messiness of our lives, along with the triumphs, no matter how large or small. There is no one ‘woman’ to be displayed onstage.”
Farmer also is working with first-time actors Kazu Takeda, Bryce Flint-Summerville (previously of the Blue Man Group), Amy Lynn Holcomb, Robin Buzzeo, Joe Smith, and Jessica Hall.
“If we go back just a few hundred years—say, to Shakespeare’s time—the stage was filled with male characters,” Steadman adds. “Even as more female characters have been given life over the centuries, women have largely been portrayed onstage through the lenses of male playwrights and directors.”
But not this weekend.
“What Doesn’t Kill Me” opens Thursday night with $10 tickets (Nov. 13 only). It will run Thursdays through Sundays through November 23 at Cape Fear Playhouse. Presented by Outrageous Pelican Productions, in conjunction with Port City Playwrights, tickets range from $16-$18 throughout the rest of its run.
What Doesn’t Kill Me
Three one-acts by Susan Steadman
Directed by Nicole Farmer
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
Nov. 13-23, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., or Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $18 GA, $16 students and seniors, $10 on 11/13 only