I recently saw two plays that take place in very different time periods but I still found myself thinking about how one work can influence the next based on the time period that we are in. Both of these plays feature strong female characters within two very different time periods.
The Rainmaker, written in the 1950’s, takes place during the Depression Era. The play showcases a strong female character but still has sexist overtones pervade the show. Meanwhile, What the Constitution Means to Me was developed in the past five years and provides a strong contrast to The Rainmaker with a modern female protagonist.
The Rainmaker is a classic, staged recently at The Shakespeare Theatre of NJ where it was beautifully directed by Bonnie J. Monte. Based off the famous movie with Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, it is about a girl being told that she will be an old maid because she is plain, until someone else shows her that she is beautiful. It’s a simple tale for our complex times where Lizzie ends up getting married, but an unlikely tale to actually end so happily during the time period that which it is set in.
What the Constitution Means to Me is a play about Heidi Schreck’s relationship with the Constitution from the young age of fifteen to her middle aged self today. Heidi is not playing a character but, rather, is telling her life story. We see her transform from a young fifteen year old with ideals about America to a now mature woman who recognizes the harsh realities for women under the United States Constitution.
Women getting married during the time period of The Rainmaker became property of their husbands. During What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck points out that the United States Constitution does not protect women from domestic abuse. So while Lizzie, at the end of the play becomes engaged, I worried for her rights as a woman married to a man who she had not even dated. Lizzie is a strong female protagonist (for the time period) but her marriage to be is to one of the deputy officers. This means that there is really no one to protect Lizzie if there are any issues within the marriage, as the person she would report it to… is her husband.
Heidi tells a story during What the Constitution Means to Me where she is given a ride home from play practice by a male cast member. They are outside and it is dark and there is no one around and he makes sexual advances towards her. The thought running through her head is, “stay alive,” even though this is someone whom she knows will not hurt her. Young girls are conditioned from a young age to be cautious of being alone with an unknown man because of the statistics and the dangers that the situation may present. At one point in The Rainmaker, Lizzie’s father and brothers leave her alone with one of the male characters that they had just met, the con artist, Starbuck. Not only do they not know this man but they are willing to trust him to be alone with the only woman in the household because they are that desperate that she get married. I was frightened for Lizzie during this point. In my opinion, Lizzie’s father and brothers put her in danger during this moment in the play as no one else was around.
I do have faith in the way the character of Lizzie develops. Through a modern lens, Lizzie appears to be a feminist as she says her opinions strongly and surely. This was acknowledged in a smart way through the directing of the production. I enjoyed having Lizzie standing front and center and proudly saying that she does not want to be anything else but herself-- that she doesn’t even know how to be anyone else. I asked Bonnie J. Monte, at the talkback following the performance, how she dealt with the sexism of the piece through a modern lens and she responded that, “the cast discussed it every step of the way as an ensemble. It was discovered that the story is even more relevant now than in the time it was written.” In What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck provides the strongest female protagonist that I have ever witnessed in any show. This woman is real and brave enough to tell her story about her abortion and the domestic violence that occurred in her family lineage.
We can still enjoy the classics but as audience members we have to acknowledge the sexism of the time period but can still appreciate the artistic crafting of the play itself. I can only hope that strong women characters just as resilient as Heidi establish themselves in the theatre scene in the coming years, especially during our current time period where women's rights are at risk for being taken away. It is more important than ever before that we continue to have strong females on the stage, as directors and on creative teams in the theatre.