Picture, if you will, a small liberal arts college. A feminist professor of literature. A white male undergraduate on an athletic scholarship. Unconscious bias kicked in yet?
Such unthinking assumptions form the central thread in Third, now playing at Redwood Curtain Theatre. The play, Wendy Wasserstein's last (it premiered just a few months before she died) catalogs the pitfalls we are all at risk of when we apply broad-brush stereotypes.
Laurie Jameson (Christina Jioras) is a 50-something professor who, having dominated her small feminist pond for several decades, is no longer able to see beyond the limits of her own belief system. When we first meet her, she is challenging her students to see King Lear not as a tragic victim but as a patriarchal oppressor watching over the "girlification" of Cordelia. Specifically, they are to attend a private showing of Jonathan Miller's 1982 film King Lear, which she takes pains to inform her audience she has been able to arrange through "personal connections."
One student is unable to attend that showing. That student is Woodson Bull III (Joey Lawrence), a white male on an athletic (in this case wrestling) scholarship and the "Third" of the title. Cue instant prejudice. A graduate of an exclusive prep school with a fancy name must be a Republican from a privileged background. A white male student on an athletics scholarship can't appreciate feminist approaches to literature. Oh, and the reason he can't attend the film showing? He has a wrestling match — the icing on the presumptive cake.
So, when Third turns in a scholarly analysis of King Lear that, in Jameson's eyes, is worthy of publication, her brain simply cannot process the idea that the work could have been produced by someone who wants to be a sports agent. She refers the matter to the college's academic standards committee, which sets in motion a train of events that will change the lives of everyone it touches.
Those others include Jameson's friend and fellow professor Nancy Gordon (Elisa Abelleira), who serves on that standards committee and is currently battling a recurrence of breast cancer. In her rush to be the supportive sister, she clumsily oversteps her bounds and is pushed away. Unfortunately, the only place else she has to go is home, where her younger daughter Emily (Cate Hatfield) is embarking on a teenage rebellion and threatening to move in with her boyfriend who works — shock, horror — in a bank.
Meanwhile, her father (Lincoln Mitchell) has embarked on a Lear-esque journey of his own into the lost and angry world of Alzheimer's disease, her unseen political science professor husband has become obsessed with weightlifting and she herself is bombarded by hot flashes. Nothing in Jameson's personal life seems to be within her control so she focuses all her insecurities on the one thing she can control: the fate of her students.
Jioras is a commanding presence as Professor Jameson. Whether she's asserting her academic credentials with Third, struggling to communicate with her ever-more-unreachable father, letting go of her daughter, invading her closest friend's personal privacy or admitting to her therapist that she's jealous of Nancy for having something to hang her anxiety on, she brings a personal touch to Jameson's inner conflicts that's remarkably affecting. Joey Lawrence is the perfect foil as Third, cocksure as only a good-looking graduate of an elite prep school can be, yet still vulnerable to the hurt of unwarranted criticism and weary of being stereotyped as a jock.
Elisa Abelleira is convincing as Nancy Gordon — likely a surrogate for Wasserstein herself — whose sardonic wit gets her through the rigors of cancer treatment and whose own academic standards set her on a collision course with her friend. Lincoln Mitchell delivers a bravura performance as Jack Jameson, trying desperately to cling to what remains of himself and reveling in his ever-fewer moments of lucidity. Cate Hatfield, in her Redwood Curtain debut, is every teenage girl who's ever tried to become her own person in the face of a strong-willed mother.
The scenic design by Jaren Sorenson, lighting design by Justin Takata and Juan Carlos Contreras, costume design by Bethany Lamoureux and sound design by Bayley Brown all come together seamlessly to convey the feel of a small college town — as they should, given our own local model. Justin Takata's direction makes clever use of Redwood Curtain's challenging space, effectively bringing the audience inside the production; the shifting between scenes was uneven and overly long in the preview I attended, but this should settle down over the course of the run.
The play itself is not perfect — Professor Jameson's diatribes teeter on the edge of caricature and the short scenes don't always allow the protagonists' positions to fully develop — but it is a timely reminder to all of us to open the echo-chamber door and take the time to listen to viewpoints other than our own.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's production of Third plays through May 20. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre takes on the musical adaptation of Disney's Beauty and the Beast starting May 5 and running through June 4. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
More fairytale magic is in store at the Arcata Playhouse when the Mandarin folktale The Frog Prince leaps on stage courtesy of Portland's Tears of Joy Puppet Theater on May 5 and 6. Call 822-1575 or visit www.arcataplayhouse.org.