UNCW Department of Theatre opens their season with Robin Post’s production of Cicely Hamilton’s “Diana of Dobson’s.” Set in Edwardian England, the themes and situations are as pertinent today as when Hamilton adapted the play in 1908 from her novel of the same name.
The action commences in a dingy basement dormitory for Dobson’s Department Store. At the time, it was not unusual for employers to provide lodging and board to employees (sometimes deducted from their wages), especially if they did not actually pay enough for the employees to support themselves. Somerset Maugham recounts this vividly in “Of Human Bondage.” Randall A. Enlow’s set for the dormitory is suitably dank and depressing. It is clearly a basement and one step up from a jail cell.
Miss Smithers (Dajah Glenn) and Kitty Brant (Renee Hapeman) are discussing Brant’s impending escape: She is getting married in three months and will no longer endure long hours and soul-crushing torment of life at Dobson’s. Smithers has been at this for most of her adult life and clearly is living in resigned resentment. The ladies are stressed and overworked. Brought up in a middle-class lifestyle, Diana (Charlotte Linighan) clashes with the powers that be. She will not conform to the reality of surviving this labyrinth or structures of the class system.
In many ways Linighan’s Diana is what I always imagined Jane Eyre to be: full of passion, fire and intelligence, only crammed into restraints of a female body, decades ahead of recognizing her basic humanness. She receives an unexpected inheritance of 300 pounds—far more money than she has held in her hand in a long time—but not enough to sustain her indefinitely. Miss Smithers urges her to save it and invest wisely, but Diana insists it is her freedom. She can enjoy life to the fullest. I couldn’t help but applaud Linigham’s freedom cry, despite her lack of pragmatism.
Part of Post’s directorial vision for the piece includes the “performance” of all the labor on stage. So rather than going to full dark for scene changes, she even choreographs the ladies packing up their belongings to depict “performing” their work. Post effectively returns to this motif for all scene changes, including creating the staged entrance of Mrs. Cantaloupe (Brandi Simmons).
Diana makes her way to a resort in the Swiss Alps (by way of Paris for clothes, of course), presenting herself as a wealthy widow. She befriends the idle classes and enjoys all the things she has dreamed of but could never afford. Mrs. Cantaloupe is saddled with a dissolute nephew, Captain Victor Bretherton (Davis Wood), who can not seem to live within his means of 600 pounds a year. She needs to marry him off to a wealthy woman who can support him.
Staying at the same resort is Sir Jabez Grinley (Michael Pipicella), a self-made millionaire who owns a string of stores. He has enough money to conjure friendly acquaintances but still struggles to really fit into high society.
In the play’s second tableau, the audience starts to understand more fully what the writer is trying to show. “Diana of Dobson’s” is partly about class but also gender, gender power and expectations. There is no question Simmons’ Mrs. Cantaloupe is far more intelligent, capable and competent than her nephew. Without her support, he surely would starve. Simmons’ Cantaloupe is infuriating and irritating to watch. Her trilling, grating laugh and nasty social backstabbing and maneuvering definitely infuriate in their perfect execution. It is like watching a slice of the Azalea Festival Garden Party isolated on stage. I couldn’t help but wonder: If she had the opportunity to actually apply her considerable force of nature to something worthwhile, what could she accomplish?
It is a hard choice to decide which is the less appealing of the two suitors: Jabez or Bretherton. Pipicella’s Sir Jabez certainly has more substance and grit. He’s a bit greasier in appearance and always has the preoccupied stare of a man whose mind is really taken up with business interests. It’s telling to watch his hands in his pockets, constantly looking for his reminder notes.
When he proposes to Diana, it is a business transaction; he fails to understand she can’t let herself live in luxury on the backs of people just like her. Diana’s conscience won’t allow her to betray her experiences and friends; yet, Sir Jabez sees it as success. The most subtle and convincing part of Pipicella’s performance is his response to her refusal. When faced with rejection, he both resigns and relishes how he still has his work. It is such a real response for an entrepreneur: This is the thing I love, that I am good at—what I think about day and night.
In contrast to Sir Jabez, it’s maddening to watch Wood’s idea of acceptable behavior and refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. He plays the victim, but of what I’m unsure. Diana calls out his deficient self-reliance—how he lacks a spine and conviction. It is a stomach-wrenching argument and the message of this “message play.” Linighan’s anger and declaration is so self-righteous, it reminds me of an Arthur Miller play—but from a woman. There seems to be no remedy. If a man were delivering this speech, he would be a hero, but a woman is just a harpy. Because that is the double standard for women in 1908 and in 2019.
Though written at the turn of the 20th century, “Diana of Dobson’s” could easily be produced in modern dress. The themes are as real today as they were 120 years ago in the Edwardian era. The costumes and sets are beautiful and a wonderful use of the resources at UNCW. If anything, utilizing the clothing of the time reminds me, especially in the second act, this is a comedy of manners—and those manners haven’t really changed. I’ve been to parties and watched, word-for-word, Hamilton’s exact exchanges play out. Her work is really surprising. Since it’s a message play, I expected it to suffer many shortcomings, as these works usually do, but it takes the audience on a legitimate and very affecting emotional journey. Hats off to Post and the cast for a great night of theatre.