by Hugh Hunter
The Drama Group is now running “Third” (2005) by Wendy Wasserstein, directed by Robert Bauer. Set in an academically prestigious New England college, it examines the mind and world of a feminist English professor.
Laurie Jameson is in the twilight of her celebrated teaching career. She fights through menopausal hot flashes long enough to lecture her freshman class on the politically correct interpretation of King Lear — it is patriarchal nonsense, she tells us — and you are struck dumb by her smugness.
Laurie just “knows what she knows.” Feeling no need for larger justification, she takes an immediate dislike to Woodson Bull III (Zac Anderson), an athlete from Groton. Sizing him up as “a walking Red State,” she later accuses him of plagiarism and hauls him before the Committee for Academic Affairs.
But Laurie gets no support, certainly not from an estranged, unseen husband. Nor from her best friend, Nancy (Colleen Bracken), a fellow teacher. Nor from her father, Jack (Wayne Snover), whose dementia cleverly parallels the King Lear story. While daughter, Emily (Julie Chen), has only one goal, to grow up to be nothing like her mother.
As director Bauer’s actors nicely animate these characters, Laurie becomes increasingly hapless. In opposition to her ideas, life itself seems to sneak up on her, and she cannot handle it. Marjorie Goldman shines as Laurie, with well-timed changes in mood and gesture. Yet the role remains palpably difficult. How do you go about portraying someone who cannot break out of a mental straitjacket?
“Third” is Wasserstein’s final play, (she died of cancer), and her canon parallels her own life as a self-reflective woman. “The Heidi Chronicles” won the Pulitzer Prize, and Laurie is essentially Heidi about 20 years later. As with many “idea” playwrights, the schematic structure of “Third” is more compelling than its dramatic intensity.
The outcome seems inevitable. Consisting of two acts, each with six or seven scenes, “Third” feels a little like participating in The Stations of the Cross. We also progress through the academic year, and the production’s use of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” further enhances the sense of ceremonial march (sound designer, Kim Pelle).
Laurie comes to see the need to break out of her cloistered world and dogmatic way of thinking. She is in the same position as Nora at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Doll House.” But where to go? What to do? “Third” is a later stage of knowing doubt in the feminist awakening.
The viewpoint of “Third” is exceedingly decent and follows a tradition of liberal self-criticism, a trail blazed by Lionel Trilling with “The Liberal Imagination” (1950). One wishes for a likewise development in their ideological opposite, but don’t hold your breath.
The Drama Group is located at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave. “Third” will run weekends, 8 p.m. through April 2. Reservations at 215-844-0724.