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In Shaw Fest’s ‘Top Girls,’ a jarring reminder of women’s struggles

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – Maybe you thought the work of feminism was finished.

Maybe you thought, as Hillary Clinton embarks on what appears to be a largely obstacle-free path to the White House, that the great struggles of history’s feminist heroes and icons have finally paid off.

Well, maybe you thought wrong.

Consider Caryl Churchill’s remarkable 1982 play “Top Girls,” a searing deconstruction of the myth of post-feminism that opened on June 26 in the Court House Theatre. It is, aside from the shoulder pads and pastels, as fresh and as frightening as the day it debuted in London’s Royal Court Theatre

Vikki Anderson’s resonant production opens with an extended musical montage that might have been lifted from a John Hughes film, in which the historical women who populate the play’s famous first scene primp and dress themselves to the strains of Madonna’s “Holiday” and other hits of the era.

That opening scene, which has often been described as one of the most enthralling in 20th century British drama, ricochets with several centuries of frustrations and injustices, distilling them down into a dissonant chorus of regret and foreboding. It is indeed a masterpiece of dialogue, masterfully multilayered in tone, meaning and effect.

But in Anderson’s production, driven more than anything else by Fiona Byrne’s clear-eyed and affecting performance as a corporate executive who rose to the top only by killing off an important part of herself, the most impressive scene comes at the end.

In that extended scene, one of the most heartbreaking and genuine I’ve ever witnessed in a Shaw Festival production, Byrne’s character Marlene sits across a table from her estranged sister (Tara Rosling) as the two attempt to come to terms with that oldest of small-town sibling rivalries: Why you moved away, and why I stayed.

There’s no resolution, but in the course of the sisters’ conversation, it becomes clear that in order to avoid a life of numb subservience, Marlene has developed a cold, Ayn Rand-esque view of the world that allowed her to detach from her humanity and ascend to great corporate heights. Men, the dialogue and the play implicitly reminds us, face nowhere near such a clear-cut choice between happiness and success.

In terms that are never anything but explicit and devastating, Churchill demonstrates with perfect economy the daily struggles women face in the working world that might never occur to their male counterparts.

One exchange, in which a 46-year-old middle manager (Rosling) explains that she wants to leave her job after 20 years because her superiors take her perfect work for granted but promote her younger male colleagues to cushy corner-office jobs, is every talented woman’s frustration amid the boys’ clubs that still run corporate culture.

Marlene, who oversees a department at a London employment agency that deals with an endless stream of dissatisfied working women trying to survive the dank man-caves of blind sexism in which they must toil, is the very embodiment of Thatcher-era conservatism. In her straightforward style, individualist rhetoric and the faint jingling of money that motivates her every move, we see glimmers of the Bushes, Romneys and Blairs to come in future decades.

That pragmatism is what prevents Marlene from having a genuine relationship with her sister and her somewhat daffy niece (played brilliantly here by Julia Course), and what so enervates the women she’s charged with matching to her grim list of potential employers.

Since Churchill wrote her play in 1982, equality has been slow to develop. American women still earn 78 percent of every dollar that men earn for the same jobs. The psychic toll is often even worse. So, regrettably, fears about Churchill’s script seeming dated or trapped in its political moment have not materialized. In tone, and in content, it rings as devastatingly true as ever.