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theater: Power Struggle

While often enjoyable, TheatreVirginia's latest play could use some script-tightening.

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Clair (Lisa McMillan) doesn't act like most chief executives of multinational corporations. She exhibits none of the cool competence that executives, both women and men, cultivate at this level. If anything, she seems more like the temperamental owner of a sports franchise. Still, she is a tough and imposing figure who is clearly in charge of her company.

As the deputy CEO, Mary (Eliza Foss) is the most intriguing character. The play turns on her manipulation of the other two characters. Has ambition gotten the best of her? Or is she simply solving a problem with Machiavellian tactics?



Manipulation is certainly a worthy theme but we can find this kind of deviousness at any level of business. In the rarefied air of corporate penthouses, a more interesting theme might focus on the conflict between executives wielding enormous power against one another. But that's not possible here. Beyond the manipulation, Mary has no base of power from which to achieve her goals; Frances serves almost totally at the whim of the other two women; and although Clair has most of the power throughout the play, she is strangely capricious about using it. In fact, these three intelligent people inexplicably never seem to recognize that the deck is stacked from the beginning.



The dialogue is sprinkled with anecdotes that are not directly related to the story. There's one particularly unnecessary example of this tendency at the beginning of the second act. Clair gives a commencement address that does nothing to advance the plot. It's really a thinly disguised direction to the audience about how we should view the subsequent events in the play.



Ron Keller's set ingeniously solves the problem of multiple settings. It also does a wonderful job of evoking an atmosphere of imperial corporate power: large textured columns, glass windows, recessed lights and the suggestion of a concave ceiling. The motorized drapes are a nice touch, but they flirt with becoming a gimmick when the button is pushed once too often.



Despite script problems, the show is often enjoyable. Under Benny Sato Ambush's direction, the cast expertly portrays people who must reconcile friendship with ambition. It's compelling to watch good people shave corners in order to succeed. And the playwright deserves credit for creating non-stereotypical female characters who don't feel the need to explain the differences between the sexes at every turn.



Unfortunately, the ethical dilemmas posed in this play feel tepid and contrived (the ending scene depends on a convenient coincidence). The news is filled with stories about sham partnerships, corporate whistleblowers, hostile takeovers, conflicts of interest, and brutal proxy fights. It's possible to imagine difficult choices more wrenching, uncomfortable and socially relevant than the ones we find here. If the potential consequences had advanced beyond job status and bruised feelings, the audience might have received a more dramatic return on the investment of time and tickets. S



TheatreVirginia's "The Company of Women" runs through April 27, every day except Monday. Tickets cost $28-$36. Call 353-6161.





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