Linda: Reality Bites Back
That strong woman we see at the beginning of this well crafted modern drama, imported from the Royal Court Theatre in London to the Manhattan Theatre Club off-broadway is Linda. And besides being the namesake of the play, she is also the woman who appears to have it all. A killer power job at a cosmetics company, winning awards for spearheading a campaign based on the idea that all women are beautiful and must be encouraged to succeed. She has a loving husband, two daughters, and a very beautiful home. What could go wrong?
This detailed and wide reaching play by british playwright, Penelope Skinner (The Ruins of Civilization), begins with an inspiring pitch by Linda of a new ad campaign aimed at women of Linda’s age. These women are feeling more and more invisible in the world of today, says Linda, vibrantly played by Janie Dee (Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential at MTC, Hand To God in the West End). The pitch wants to advertise directly to the over 50 female market. She wants to grab hold of them with both hands and help them stand up to the world around them. Who knew that after that pitch it is she who must turn to an employee and ask to be supported so she doesn’t collapse. As the pieces, one by one, that she thought she meticulously had assembled, begin to fall away all, her ability to hold herself upright; strong and steady, starts to slip away.
The supporting players in this grand production are all in perfect sync. Creating real and interesting characters that are all just trying to live up to Linda’s standards and vision. The school teacher husband (Donald Sage Mackay) flailing helplessly in her wake fails her in the one way she needed him the most. An older daughter, Alice, played with intelligence layered with fragility and strength by Jennifer Ikeda (Vietgone) struggles with shame, crippled in life because of a nasty mean spirited attack on her persona while in high school. At odds with the optimistic Linda, she can’t seem to show herself to the world. And a younger daughter (Molly Ranson) trying to be a strong willed woman before her time, struggles to find an empowering role model for an audition. It’s a strong metaphor for her desperate growth from teenager to adulthood. All are basically invisible to each other, regardless of how hard Linda tries to represent strength and togetherness. She flails just like the rest when things start to become unstable.
At work, Linda has to deal with her older male boss (a solid John C. Vennema) who throws Linda aside for the young and rising female coworker, Amy (a exacting ‘mean girl’ portrayal by Molly Griggs). Amy is an aggressive cold creature who has modeled her life and career on women like Linda. And a self-help spiritual guru of a temp (Maurice Jones), who preaches the word of being in and embracing the moment, and is a bit too addicted to selfies. Throw in an older-than-she-looks singer, (an underused Meghann Fahy) with romantic abandonment issues, and ask yourself, what could possibly go wrong?
Sometimes Linda is a bit too overreaching with the many parallel processes and over-worn devices. So many things from the big list of what could go wrong, are checked off. This is no King Lear by any means, even with the reference to him by the young daughter, losing your mind when things start to collapse. This play is not that epic in scope and tragedy. Mind you, it’s a stellar production; beautifully designed (scenic design: Walt Spangler; costume: Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting: Jason Lyons), wonderfully directed by MTC’s artistic director, Lynne Meadow (Of Good Stock, Our Mother’s Brief Affair) and realistically and emotionally performed by all, with impeccable pacing and thoughtfulness, but what do we have in the end?
Within the two act play, we get a grand decade-wide view of Linda’s approach to the world, and where it goes wrong. The structure of the play really lets us see how things may advance in our society, but yet stay the same in the long run. Even with great hope and optimism, and even when we see change, it doesn’t mean it will forever evolve forward. America in 2017 is the exact place this outlook is being replicated in the real world. The hope and promise of a new future that we all saw eight years ago has now brought us to today. It’s not the most hopeful play, at a time in our lives where, I guess, I’m craving for a more hopeful outcome. Is optimism a delusional place to reside within? I’m begging the universe that it is not, but Linda doesn’t, in the end, inspire hope. It may be just a bit too real.