Honoring a hometown hero is always a worthy exercise. Even if the new New Athens Players doesn’t produce another play beyond its maiden voyage, its current effort solidly does the job.
At the Village Theatre (2113 E. 11th St., Village of East Davenport), company founder, producer and director Mischa Hooker opened a “Spotlight on Susan Glaspell” last weekend, with a trio of works that pay tribute to the Pulitzer Prize winner from Davenport.
The name of New Athens Players is based on a comment her husband George Cram Cook made to Floyd Dell while they were in Greece in the early 1920s — that they should return to Davenport and start a “New Athens.” But (as we learn in the middle, meditative piece here) Cook died in Greece on Jan. 14, 1924, at 50, from an infectious bacterial disease he caught from his pet dog, who died of it.
In his program note, Hooker wrote that Glaspell (1876-1948) had a tremendous influence on modern American theater, “yet she is not always adequately celebrated even in the Quad Cities she came from.”
This new Davenport theater troupe aims to rectify that, to honor and extend her formidable legacy. To me, the most affecting piece in this new production is the closing Olivia Hoft monologue in the first, “The Rules of the Institution,” adapted by Hooker from Glaspell’s short story.
It showcases a young woman’s rebellion against arbitrarily imposed traditions of behavior. Hoft’s strong role is Judith Brunswick, who is clearly a stand-in for the author, and she bravely stands up to her mother, the equally strong Patti Flaherty.
According to the International Susan Glaspell Society, the writer (who graduated from Drake in Des Moines) never liked to feel controlled or limited, and she actively rebelled against society’s expectations.
The “Rules” story was published among a collection originally penned in the early 20th-century, and reveal many leading characters are resolute women—artists, students, workers—who struggle to break society impositions to fulfill their longings, according to a summary of the collection.
Among a nearly all-female cast in New Athens’ “Rules of the Institution,” Hoft shines — as do Kitty Israel and Kate Farence in particular. As Judith, Hoft inspiringly reflects a common young adult rebellion, wanting to live life to the fullest — to escape her limiting home environment, strike out on her own, see the world, and come up with a new way of seeing things.
In her life, Glaspell certainly did all these — leaving Davenport with her husband George Cram Cook (a twice-divorced man whom she married in 1913) for the East Coast, starting the Provincetown Players on Cape Cod, then New York City, and moving to Greece with him. Much of her writing also was marked by experimentation and powerful female characters, with themes of social justice.
Memories of Greece
“An Iowa Seer Comes Home to Greece: Memories of Jig Cook” is the middle work at New Athens Players, a touching memorial of Glaspell’s husband Jig Cook and his untimely death in Greece, made up of excerpts from the poetry of Cook, along with the reminiscences of Glaspell and fellow QC writer Floyd Dell.
Three stellar local veterans embody this trio with authority, grace and passion — Dee Canfield as Glaspell, Dave Bonde as Cook and Michael Carron as Dell. Hooker has created this piece quoting excerpts from the three (including Bonde in a Greek toga), and a large screen showing relevant photos, such as scenic shots on the water.
I especially liked Bonde’s style of easy confidence and a peaceful vibe.
After an intermission is a more modern setting of Glaspell’s most famous one-act play, “Trifles” — a 1916 play that demonstrates the quiet solidarity between women in the context of a murder trial (based on a crime and investigation Glaspell reported on in Des Moines).
A husband meets his maker
As a young reporter for the Des Moines Daily News, Glaspell covered a murder case, and years later was inspired to craft the story into a play.
The real case was Margaret Hossack, convicted of killing her 59-year-old husband, John, a well-to-do farmer, on Dec. 1, 1900. In “Trifles,” farmer John Wright has been murdered, in the middle of the night, when someone strung a rope around his neck. That may have been his wife, the quiet and forlorn Minnie Wright, according to the play synopsis.
We never see the husband or wife in the play; everything takes place after the murder, with discussions among neighbors, the county attorney and sheriff. An unseen dead bird is a key plot point, but the proceedings seem fairly stiff and unexciting (given the apparent marital discord that precede them).
The play also ends kind of abruptly, in an unsatisfying way, but the actors (Carron, Farence, Alaina Pascarella, Jay Ruefer, and John R. Turner) are eminently capable.
Here’s to a long life for New Athens — performances will continue 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 3, Saturday, March 4, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 5. The Village Theatre blessedly features a bar with a wide range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Tickets are $12 each ($10 for seniors/students/military), or two for $20 cash.
Make reservations by emailing NewAthensPlayers@gmail.com (be sure to request reservations at least 24 hours before showtime); reservations are official when you receive a confirmation email.