Significant historical events often shape an entire generation's psyche, and when that generation reaches maturity, the whole of society can be similarly affected. America's Depression-era babies, for example, were nurtured in an atmosphere of guilt and whispers; they grew up embracing denial over truth, and refused to re-examine their rigid belief systems despite evidence that strongly suggested they should. Thus child abuse, domestic violence, adultery, and teenage pregnancy, though prevalent throughout all social strata, were rarely discussed publicly. Blind patriotism was considered to be the hallmark of good citizenship, while blatant acts of racial or religious prejudice were quietly tolerated.
When the raucous baby boomers came along, many coddled by fine and lengthy college educations, the situation changed dramatically. Teachers, sociologists, gurus, and psychiatrists encouraged the Woodstock generation to openly question authority and established traditions, to elevate truthfulness to the level of moral imperative, and to expose injustice regardless of the consequences. Students sat in coffeehouses debating, in minute detail, the meaning of sex, of war, of leg-shaving; exhaustive intellectual analysis of all human traits seemed a necessary step in ripping away the protective curtain of our parents' world and ushering in a new and blinding light.
Now that the boomers are in power, this turnabout has reached almost absurd proportions. In our post-Watergate society, we not only talk about the possibility of Michael Jackson's being a pederast, we go so far as to scrutinize pictures of genital markings described by his alleged victim. Previously taboo subjects compel this new society. Why do fathers molest their children? Is Jesus a historical figure or are Christian churches lying? Is homosexuality innate or learned? Savvy authors and television producers have become wealthy exploiting this population's obsessive self-absorption, and there's no end in sight -- 25 years from now don't be surprised to see widespread public interest in wheelchairs and walkers.
We seemingly cannot have sex, eat, raise children, divorce, or even die without first devouring a ludicrous amount of information about the subject. Perhaps we believe that such indulgences can help to disarm the sting of tragedy and sorrow, that the pains of life are more manageable after we've converted them to abstract concepts.
For instance, the women of my mother's generation commonly were resigned to the fact that their middle-age husbands were susceptible to having affairs with younger women. Not so among my peers. Helpless resignation is simply unacceptable, and we are driven to understand exactly how and why this occurs, and whether it can be stopped. Terms such as "trophy wives" have replaced the more acerbic "tart." The topic of infidelity and abandonment is appearing more and more frequently as a theme among fiction writers. And now it has come to the stage.
Women of a certain age and generation will love Wilson's Women, the debut play of author Marlene Fanta Shyer. According to biographical notes in the playbill, Shyer is the mother of three grown children, which means she probably knows a thing or two about long-term male-female relationships. Her marital status is not revealed, but it hardly matters; no doubt she has had friends who have suffered the ugly fate of being left alone in middle age, summarily exchanged for a cuter, less complicated model.
Although Wilson's Women works nicely as a drama, thanks in no small part to the skills of the two talented actresses starring in the Public Theatre Company's production, I wonder if Shyer's material wouldn't be better suited to a book. After all, the two characters -- first wife Eva and girlfriend Jocelyn, who eventually becomes wife number two -- tell their stories mainly through monologues (spoken over the phone to unseen friends, therapists, and relatives). Shyer is a fine writer, and the dramatic action never lags, but the play is undeniably wordy. Which is no surprise considering Shyer's ambitious efforts to explore every possible reason why loyal husbands leave loyal wives for a second chance at youth.
It is tribute to Shyer's talents that both women are portrayed with sympathy, although the author should be slapped on the wrist for resorting to one annoying stereotype: Eva is smart and worldly, whereas Jocelyn is a giggling bimbo. But Jocelyn is also kind and loving, more a victim of the husband (only known as Wilson and never seen) than an evil temptress. And Eva is rather drab and passionless, a predictable companion who might bore anyone after 30 years of marriage.
Jocelyn works at Tourneau in New York, selling expensive watches to insecure male yuppies. She's attracted to Wilson because "he pays his bills, goes to the dentist every three months, and wears underwear." This is in contrast to her previous boyfriend, a burned-out alcoholic filled with the pointless angst of Generation X.
Eva, on the other hand, asserts that older women are "the new underclass....For ten minutes we go through that oo-la-la centerfold stage, and then we're 38," she tells a friend on the phone. "We spend 40 years over the hill."
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Shyer's clever plotting and general avoidance of cliches allow the play to remain intriguing until the final scene, which offers no comforting solutions. The first wife does not get her revenge and the second wife is not dumped for a newer, even younger woman. The final moments are both poignant and believable.
As Eva, Virginia Velenchik starts out too wooden, but gradually she unveils a wealth of emotions, from shock to bitterness to enduring grief. She restrains her anger to an almost irritating degree when Wilson first leaves her without warning or reason, but at the same time she never overacts or attempts to play the audience for sympathy. Marcie Hall perfectly embodies the guileless Jocelyn, just as Shyer created the character, and in a subtle way manages to gain the audience's sympathy in spite of being a home-wrecker. Both actresses, and Robyn Hackett as director, should be applauded for bringing to life interesting characters who react with honesty in complex situations, and for producing a vivid play that often rings uncomfortably true (especially to a critic who has already crossed over the 38-year threshold).
Two new novels dealing with the same issues as Wilson's Women are being released soon, and a PBS documentary is supposedly in the works. By the time some boomer females have lost their husbands to Gen X hussies, the older women may be angry and unhappy, but they will not be uninformed.
Shyer's work certainly can't boast universal appeal to all ages and sexes, but few first plays are works of transcendent genius. However, if she keeps writing for the stage with this much intellect, Shyer may well become a premier playwright for her generation.