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Women Of No Importance

Eileen Dugan and Vincent O'Neill in Irish Classical's production of Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance." (photo by Gene Witkowski)
Peter Palmisano and Jessica Wegrzyn in the Kavinoky's production of David Auburn's "Proof." (photo by Simon Faber)

At the Kavinoky and the Irish Classical, two plays that address gender politics

Mae West once observed that “It takes two to get one in trouble,” succinctly outlining the essence of a double standard. Men are allowed far more latitude in the world than women.

This week, two plays with the theme of gender politics are playing in town. Separated by more than 100 years, Oscar Wilde wrote A Woman of No Importance in 1893, and David Auburn’s Proof opened in 2000. The Irish Classical Theatre Company will open the former this weekend; the latter is playing at the Kavinoky Theatre.

In Wilde’s play, Mrs. Arbuthnot pretends to be a widow, but is, in fact, an unwed mother with one grown son, Gerald. A crisis ensues when Gerald’s unscrupulous biological father, Lord Illingworth, offers the young man a job. After Mrs. Arbuthnot reveals her past connection to Illingworth, Gerald must decide between a promising future and loyalty to the mother who raised him alone.

The title of the play refers to the low, nearly disposable status of certain women in the Victorian era. Recognizing his former lover’s handwriting, Illingworth dismisses Mrs. Arbuthnot as “a woman of no importance.” The woman will earn the opportunity to return the offense.

“Poor Laws” of the Victorian era sought to encourage women to be more moral by denying government assistance to unwed mothers, while allowing unwed father’s to go scot-free. There are numerous accounts of highborn men abandoning women of lower economic status who had the impudence to become pregnant. Thus, while it took two to make the social transgression, literally, only one would end up in trouble. Lord Illingworth, we are told, is a man who views women as “toys.” Mrs. Arbuthnot’s ability to make her own way in society is therefore, all the more impressive.

Fast-forward 107 years.

In David Auburn’s Proof, Catherine is the daughter of Robert, a mathematical genius. This young woman possesses astonishing mathematical gifts herself—and yet, as the play begins, she is in a state of depression, languishing in the house where she has been caring for her recently deceased father, after abandoning her own studies. She has begun to fear that her intellectual superiority is actually the onset of the same mental illness that plagued her brilliant father.

Catherine only begrudgingly admits that she has any mathematical talent at all, revealing in the opening scene that she has obsessively and uncontrollable been keeping a mental tally of her days of depression. In this scene, we see Robert encouraging Catherine to get back into life and to accept her remarkable intellect. We soon learn, however, that this is the young woman’s fantasy of a supportive and encouraging father. In flashback, we discover that Robert had, in reality, discouraged his daughter from leaving home to pursue education.

Indeed, no one has confidence in Catherine—not her sister, not Hal, the math student who claims to love her. When Catherine reveals that she has not actually wasted her years caring for her father, but, in fact, spent her solitary evenings working on a mathematical proof, successfully solving an illusive mathematical puzzle with gigantic implications, Hal and her sister accuse her of trying to pass off her father’s work as her own. In short, they tell her that she is a woman of no importance.

Both plays are marvelous. Wilde builds his well-made critique of Victorian morals with a flurry of epigrams that establish character and force a dramatic turning point in their lives. George Bernard Shaw preferred this play over Wilde’s 1895 masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, and fans of the later play will recognize the seeds of that accomplishment in such turns of phrase as:

“One must have some occupation nowadays. If I hadn’t my debts I shouldn’t have anything to think about.”

“One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that, would tell one anything.”

“Nothing spoils romance so much as a sense of humor in the woman.”

“It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.”

By contrast, the brilliance in David Auburn’s Proof lies largely in the meticulous layering of details to establish Catherine’s character. Is she a mathematical genius, or is she deluded?

Auburn casts his dramatic axioms about the stage and obliges us to take them up deductively long before he finally reveals his perfect conclusion. Catherine’s intellect is never at question—she cannot, for example, be lied to. She knows Hal is trying to smuggle a precious notebook out of the house. She knows her sister is trying to trick her into psychiatric care. But she is also vulnerable to human desire and self-doubt, and it is on these variables that Auburn builds a riveting play. Yes, she is a clever girl, but is she a mathematical genius?

Directed by Norman Sham and featuring Jessica Wegrzyn as Catherine, Jonathan Shuey as Hal, Peter Palmisano as Robert, and Aleks Malejs as the sister, Proof continues through February 2.

Directed by Josephine Hogan, A Woman of No Importance opens on Friday and stars Eileen Dugan as Mrs. Arbuthnot and Vincent O’Neill as Lord Illingworth, with Alan Trinca as Gerald. The production continues through February 9. See the “On the Boards” section for details of both productions.