Review of Bull in a China Shop at Washington University

    The people portrayed in Bull in a China Shop would not have spoken the way they do in the play. The play’s language is contemporary. The story is from the first third of the 20th century.

    The combination of old and new produces an intriguing script. It received an excellent production from Washington University’s Performing Arts Department.

    The principal characters in Bryna Turner’s play are Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. Woolley was the first woman to attend Brown University and the president of Mt. Holyoke College from 1900 to 1937. At the start of the play, she says her goal is to change the school from “a training ground for good pious wives” to one that develops “fully evolved human beings.”

    Marks was a student of Woolley’s at Wellesley College, where the two began a lifelong partnership. Marks followed Woolley to Mt. Holyoke and taught English there for nearly 40 years.

    Playwright Turner graduated from Mt. Holyoke but did not learn about Woolley and Marks’s intimacy until the college’s archives mounted a digital exhibition on the women’s lives and letters. The play is about how they maintained their relationship until Woolley’s death in 1947.

    The script is comprised of short scenes that move briskly through the Woolley and Marks’s professional achievements as well as their personal relationship.

    The Washington U. staging had a splendid cast. Sarah Wilkinson as Woolley and Samantha Campisi as Marks created vivid characters and convincingly portrayed the pleasures and pressures in the couples’ life together.

    Turner shrewdly stays with one set of supporting characters instead of introducing new ones to fit a strict chronology. Dean Welch is in the play to converse with Woolley about the school and its trustees. Pearl is an ardently admiring student of Marks’s and the president of a secret club whose members are fans of Marks and Woolley’s relationship. Felicity is a professor of philosophy and Marks’s roommate in a house off campus. These characters were ably played by Natasha Cole as Dean Welsh, Sofia McGrath as Pearl, and Ella Sherlock as Felicity. The voiceover actors were Ryadah Heiskell and Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal.

    The pacing by director Annamaria Pileggi was ideally suited to the action. Pileggi’s direction fully exploited Robert Mark Morgan’s wonderfully flexible, multilevel scenic design. The set made it easy to make a bed appear and disappear at center stage and to repurpose the windows of an academic building as the bars of a jail.

    Dominique Rhea Green’s costumes were a welcome reminder of the story’s original period. Emily Frei’s props, Seth Kleinberg’s lighting, and Benjamin Lewis’s sound contributed admirably to the atmosphere.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Danny Reise Photography