In 1893, George Gissing published a novel called The Odd Women. The title derived from the fact that there were a million more women than men in Victorian England. These “odd” women weren’t able to land a husband, and this had a severe economic impact on women.
Gissing’s story was of three impoverished sisters – Alice, Virginia and Monica – whose paths cross with an orphaned 30-something woman, Rhoda. Rhoda is unmarried and living with an older unmarried woman, Mary. Together, they are running a secretarial school to teach marketable skills to some of these “odd” women.
Mary invites the three sisters to come to the school. Mary has a roguish cousin named Everard who falls in love with Rhoda. There’s a romantic confusion involving Monica and Everard (a bit too complicated to explain here). Everard proposes a “free love” arrangement to the bluestocking Rhoda, only to have her tell him she actually wants a conventional marriage.
Then there’s some misinformation about Monica and Everard, which causes Rhoda to break off her engagement to Everard. Monica dies shortly after giving birth to a daughter (she’s pregnant by someone other than Everard). No one is happy at the end of the novel.
Toronto playwright Linda Griffith took Gissing’s novel and transformed it into the play Age of Arousal. She retained most of the storyline, including the dates (the play begins in 1885 and continues for a couple of years).
Griffith added a backstory for Mary, making her a passionate English suffragette who had previously been imprisoned and force-fed. This ignores the fact that the radical suffrage movement in England only took shape in the first decade of the 20th century and the first time an imprisoned suffragette was force-fed was 1909, that is, about 20 years after the period of the play. This is the first of many problems with the play.
Rachel Eugster, Margo MacDonald and Anna Lewis essay the three sisters – Alice, Virginia and Monica. Lisa Jeans plays Rhoda, Eleanor Crowder is Mary, and Tim Oberholzer is Mary’s cousin Everard.
The characters often alternate between genteel conversation and voicing their private thoughts. The latter are often quite lewd. Either because of Griffiths’ instructions or Diane Fajrajsl’s direction, the characters speak simultaneously when voicing their thoughts. When this is done well – it was perfected in Robert Altman’s many films – the overlapping dialogue increases the audience’s understanding of the characters. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in Age of Arousal. It was often impossible for me to parse each character’s words or to get the gist of what they were saying.
It didn’t help that sometimes the actresses – particularly Jeans – rushed their lines. The exception was MacDonald, who did a solid job of delivering her lines with good diction and pacing.
Speaking of pacing, whether it was opening night jitters or a more fundamental problem, the play didn’t seem to find its rhythm until after intermission. Unfortunately, that rhythm disintegrated after a couple of scenes.
Griffiths and Fajrajsl try for humour in some of the scenes, but don’t often succeed. However, there are some laughs to be had. MacDonald and Oberholzer had most of the good comedic lines; these elicited some laughter from the audience. Moreover, MacDonald was amusing as a genteel drunk. But I found Virginia’s sudden shift in personality in the second half of the play jarring. Actually, the entire play seemed to lurch into a darker pool of melancholy after intermission.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the costumes and hair design. The costumes were sometimes peculiar and were often wrong for either 1885 or 1910s. Ditto most of the women’s hairdos/wigs. The visuals shouldn’t distract the audience from the play.
All told, Age of Arousal failed to arouse my interest.
Age of Arousal runs at The Gladstone until February 22. Click here for showtimes and to purchase tickets.