Director Chris O’Connor is always surrounded by women. While growing up, he had four sisters, and now has two daughters of his own.
He has also spent the past several weeks in rehearsals directing an all-female cast at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.
O’Connor, an acting professor at the University of Miami, is the director for “The Women,” a mid-20th century play featuring 20 actresses that will open Wednesday night at the Ring.
“I’ve found myself surrounded by women all my life – it’s no big deal,” he said. “I think the challenge has not been working with a lot of women. The challenge has been directing a complicated play with a lot of characters and trying to bring out the story in that and to keep it simple, to keep it grounded and to keep it real.”
“The Women” was written in 1936 by Clara Booth Luce as a biting comedy that critiques the Manhattan upper-class society of the time. Luce had worked her way into this high status in 1935 after she married Henry Robinson Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines.
Luce’s influence extended beyond her Broadway shows, as she went on to serve as a Connecticut congresswoman and became the first female appointed to an ambassador position abroad in Italy, where she worked for three years. Her life experience set the stage for her script.
“The show really is about a woman, the lead character Mary Haines, who’s faced with a crisis in her life and she’s in a world that is run by men and how she navigates that and how she navigates the part of society that really has a microscope on it,” O’Connor said.
In the theatre, having an all-female cast is unusual because productions typically offer more male than female roles. Although men are part of the world of the play and are often referenced, a male actor never appears on stage.
“I was a little nervous truthfully, just because it’s a lot of estrogen and just like who knows the kinds of tensions there will be and all of that, but I had a great time,” said junior Rachel Eddy, who plays Peggy Day. “Actually it was kind of soothing because I don’t know, you don’t have to put on any masks for a guy. You can come in your pajamas and nobody cares. We’re all very understanding of each other.”
To prepare for the show, the cast spent a week sitting at a table reading and discussing the play. O’Connor discovered the college actors connected with how the women in the play treated each other. The cast recognized how people can be catty and mean to one another and how they can also be supportive and loyal.
“That kind of the dynamic of the play is this loyalty, betrayal and all these sorts of things,” O’Connor said. “Even though it’s a play in the ‘30s, I think it’s got some universal truth, even to a college audience of this era.”
O’Connor is hoping this will bring in more college students and general audience members by changing the set up of the theater. He has brought back the classic theater in the round set up, from which the “ring” in the theater’s name is based. This arrangement places the actors in the middle of the theater with the seats surrounding the stage. It also allows more seating, which will hopefully bring in more ticket sales, according to O’Connor.
This is the first time in the 2014-15 season that the stage has been set up this way. According to sophomore Rachel Bonet, who plays the Countess, this added additional challenges to the show.
“The ring is interesting because there’s people everywhere you look,” Bonet said. “You have to really enunciate and have really good diction and speak with a lot of support so that these people can hear you when they can’t even see you, can’t see what you’re doing, can’t see who you’re talking to.”
Despite its challenges, O’Connor feels the play has a lot of activity and stage business that will make audiences feel they are in the room with the characters.
These moments among the women explore themes like marriage, cattiness, and the portrayal of an affair, where the blame is usually placed on the other woman, rather than the male in the relationship.
Despite being set in a different time period, Eddy was surprised at how relevant the play remains.
“Even though there’s been feminist movements since that time, we don’t really think of the man as the center of the household necessarily anymore, but there’s still a lot of that remains,” Eddy said. “Men tend to be more dominant, I feel, and so it’s interesting that I think girls still put their men on a pedestal … so it picks up on a lot of things that are still wrong with our society, like little subtleties.”
Beyond the overarching themes, the play is peppered with witty lines – something Eddy hopes the audience will find just as entertaining as the drama.
“You can laugh at this kind of gossip and you don’t have to be involved in it,” Eddy said.
If You Go
Where: Jerry Herman Ring Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Cost: $10 for students, $25 regular admission
The show is free for students on “Totally Tuesday” Feb. 24.