Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
For me, a show at Fairview Library Theatre is a trip down memory lane. I danced there many times while growing up, and more recently, have watched my daughter dance multiple times on the same stage. So an invitation from Stage Centre Productions was a welcome opportunity to return to the theatre to revisit a more distant historical past through their presentation of Jessica Swales’ Blue Stockings (2013).
Blue Stockings centres on the experiences of the first four women to attend Girton College, Cambridge University in 1896. In a time when a woman’s place was assumed to be at home, they not only attend classes, but advocate for earning a formal degree qualification at the end of their programs – much to the dismay and disgust of their male peers and professors. The play’s title is a variation of “bluestockings,” a denigratory term for female intellectuals. In one memorable scene, psychiatrist Dr Maudsley (here played by Roger Kell) posits the commonly-held “scientific” belief that hysteria was caused by the wandering womb (the Greek word for womb is hysteros). A woman was considered weak and fragile by nature; therefore, taxing her intellect could cause her womb to wander up toward her throat, ultimately leading to death by suffocation. Pregnancy was the preemptive cure for keeping her womb safely in its natural place. And naturally, she was to stay at home and out of school – an attitude endorsed by Queen Victoria herself. Needless to say, the Girton Girls railed against this subjugation, and the play references the turning tide of social change bubbling in the late nineteenth century, such as the suffragist movement, gender equality in education, and female autonomy.
This is a fine production: well-performed and cleverly staged. Director Elaine O’Neal draws a strong ensemble performance from her 20-member cast. There is good machismo chemistry among The Boys: Evan Walsh (as Ralph Mayhew), Connor Cooke (as Holmes) Pierre Rivard (as Lloyd), Stephen Vani (as Edwards) and Holm Bradwell as the kindly Will Bennett. The quartet of intrepid Girton Girls also get a solid, coordinated portrayal from Olivia Jon (as Maeve), Lindsay Woolford (as Carolyn), Nikki Hogan (as Celia) and Kimberley Well (as Tess). The striking set and costume design by J.B. Pierre Rajotte evokes the atmosphere of the late Victorian era, especially the masculine haughtiness of Cambridge University, while remaining portable and functional. The set makes full use of the large stage, and is changed in view of the audience, intercut with subtle sequences that serve as transitions between scenes. Overall, the show presents the weighty topic of these women’s fight for educational reform and access with charm, while at the same time inspiring head-shaking outrage.
Some practical observations: first, the play is almost 3 hours long (including one 15-minute intermission) and, as is appropriate for the 1896-set play, relies mostly on dialogue to convey its themes. Audiences should prepare to listen carefully, for a full appreciation of the play’s references to the many pertinent issues in this charged time in history, when the wheels of social change had just started turning towards equality. Miss Blake (Heather Goodall), a lecturer at Girton College, asks the Girls, “If you had to choose between love and education, which would it be?” Though they no longer need to choose, teen audience members may observe how recent proposed changes to Ontario education eerily echo this distant time, when passionate and eager students were being denied access to learning they wanted. One final practical matter: Fairview Library is an active community hub. This makes the small parking lot a busy place. Audiences should allot themselves an extra 10 minutes to park at adjacent Fairview Mall and walk to the theatre, which is fully accessible with a ramp and hearing-assistance technology.
Blue Stockings is an insightful, compelling, and thought-provoking play. It also provides a wonderful introduction to Stage Centre Productions and its dedicated group of talented actors and administrators, who share their skills and love of theatre with the larger North York community. And with its multi-generational history as a vibrant performing-arts venue, Fairview Library Theatre remains a friendly place to experience a show. You can catch this one until March 30, and also plan for To Kill a Mockingbird, the final play of Stage Centre’s season, in May.
News You Can Use
What: Blue Stockings, by Jessica Swale, presented by Stage Centre Productions; directed by Elaine O’Neal
Performed by Kimberley Wells, Nikki Hogan, Lindsay Woodford, Olivia Jon, Evan Walsh, Pierre Rivard, Connor Cooke, Stephen Vani, Holm Bradwell, Catherine Lenihan, Chris Irving, Heather Goodall, Peter Bannon, Harry Hochman, Scott Griffin, Nicole Burda, James Marshall, Dani Holden, Brad Emes
Who: Audiences 12 years of age and older
When: On stage until March 30, 2019
Where: Fairview Library Theatre, 5 Fairview Mall Drive, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: stagecentreproductions.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019