The one real takeaway from the production of “Women on Fire,” on stage now at O’Connell & Company, is what an acting treasure Buffalo has in Mary Kate O’Connell.
The show is a series of 20 monologues performed here by five women and, while all do a fine job with their respective assignments, it is O’Connell’s pieces that own the night. She’s an upbeat but heartbroken mom who is part of an obituary club (they make sure someone attends the funerals of folks whose families have moved away); she’s an outspoken advocate of shopping therapy; and she’s the unappreciated family caregiver who lets it all hang out in the confessional, where she points out that her alleged “sins” feel more like penance.
With those characters, O’Connell draws the biggest laughs of the night, but she also delivers a hit straight to the gut as Mary Jane, a terminally ill farm wife trying to come to grips with the unfairness of it all. “Illness,” she says, “is the original hostile takeover.”
With her pragmatic view, she understand the self-serving impulse behind the attention of others.
“You hope I’ll survive because then maybe you will,” she says bitterly. Don’t get your hopes up, she adds. “Survival is nontransferable.”
She also has no truck with those who would look for the silver lining of facing one’s mortality.
“Nothing is worth this. No knowledge. No insult. No yield,” she says. And no crime: “I never did nuthin’ that hurt anybody this bad.”
Elizabeth Oddy and Sara Kow-Falcone also pick up four characters each, while Sandra Gilliam plays three, including the longest speech of the show, a rambling soft-core, free-verse description of her passion for her lover and the end to which it led. Christina Rausa rounds it out with five pieces, including a not-yet-has-been star attending a class reunion and a career woman sidelined by a stroke who finds new life in her garden.
Altogether, this two-act version of Irene O’Garden’s “Women on Fire” has the cast playing 20 different women telling quick stories of defining aspects of their lives. The original one-woman play offered a rotating selection of about a dozen pieces in one act, and there is much to be said for that. Absorbing so many different, disjointed characters in one show forces the audience to pick and choose when to pay attention. While the variety does exhibit the breadth of experience women can have – at least these American women represented in here – one struggles to find the point.
Which is a shame, since each of the monologues could provide the centerpiece for a full-length play on its own.
Instead, each woman gets her few minutes on the stage, arriving with no introduction and departing with no connection to the others beyond being female.
Director James Paul Ivey, whose sister Judith Ivey originated the play as a one-woman show, bolsters some of the early monologues by providing a “listener” on stage with the speaker. Having another woman nearby adds to the intimacy rather than weakening it, because that’s what women do – they listen.
When the second act opens with all five women sitting in a semi-circle, the first impression is that there will be more warmth and interaction. Instead, those who aren’t speaking appear more as observers than listeners. It’s like one of those children’s recitals, where each kid does their bit and then fidgets while everyone else runs through their performances.
The isolation of each piece takes away from the kind of heat “Women on Fire” could generate, but it doesn’t take away from the efforts of each of the actors. Rausa digs into some old-school feminism as a sharp counterpoint to the feisty femininity of O’Connell’s gals. Gilliam brings her characters up from deep emotional depths while Kow-Falcone takes a more in-your-face turn as a graffiti artist before taking on the pain of an emotionally abused woman who is more afraid of being alone than being with her abusive partner. And then there is Oddy, who in her pieces is by turns angry, exuberant, prayerful and – best of all –a pirate!
Although “Women on Fire” simmers rather than burns, it does have a fair share of tasty parts that can make for some bright post-performance discussions, especially among those willing to see themselves in the women on stage.
“Women on Fire”
2.5 stars (Out of four)
Monologues presented by O’Connell & Company through May 1 at the Park School, 4625 Harlem Road. Tickets are $25 general admission. Info: oconnellandcompany.com or call 848-0800.