Chicago Theatre Review
It’s a Woman’s World
Domesticated – Steppenwolf Theatre
As Cassidy begins her science presentation about sexual dimorphism occurring in the animal kingdom, the school gym suddenly becomes the backdrop for a special televised news bulletin. Bill Pulver, who also happens to also be Cassidy’s father, with his wife Judy by his side, is publicly admitting to and apologizing for a sexual transgression he committed while in office. Cassidy’s science report offers several new and surprising facts about various forms of wildlife, specifically how the female of certain species dominate the male. The audience will be all too familiar with the kind of humbling, public apology for unprofessional behavior that Bill delivers. What will surprise many is the revenge wreaked upon him by all the females in Bill’s world, and how it mirrors the animal kingdom. Ultimately Bill’s pompous, self-centered superiority is stripped away as he becomes domesticated.
Bruce Norris’ scathing, scintillating two-act drama pits Bill against an array of women. They include his wife Judy, their two school-age daughters, Cassidy and Casey, and Bill’s mother. Also included in this cast of females is Becky, the 23-year-old drug-addicted prostitute, seriously injured during their hotel room tryst, as well as her optimistic, blue collar mother. In addition we meet other women, like Bobbie, Bill’s savvy, sensible attorney (who also happens to be Judy’s best friend and has her own sexual history with Bill), a popular television talk show host, the family housekeeper, Bill’s supervisor when he was an OB-GYN, various female patients, waitstaff and bartenders. We’re even introduced to an angry transgender woman (played with intelligence and ferocity by, ironically, the only other male in this cast, Esteban Andres Cruz) who confronts Bill in a bar and almost literally blinds him. For Bill, the tables have turned. He comes to realize that it’s definitely a woman’s world and Mr. Pulver has become a victim of it.
Norris’ play premiered two years ago at Lincoln Center when it was directed by Anna D. Shapiro; in Chicago the playwright himself, the newest member of the Steppenwolf company, has the honor. By staging his own script and guiding his handpicked ensemble of brilliant actors himself, audiences are privileged to experience this play precisely the way Mr. Norris intended it. His cast of 14 is headed by fellow company member Tom Irwin, as Bill. The handsome Mr. Irwin nails all the pomposity of this character, creating an oily, wheeler-dealer of a doctor-turned-politician. Irwin’s character reeks of misogyny and self-assured superiority, particularly among “the weaker sex.” What he gradually learns is that women are anything but weak.
The always incredible Mary Beth Fisher truly shines as Bill’s wife. Ms. Fisher’s signature dry humor and powerful, honest delivery takes center stage as Judy Pulver. Her character begins strong, yet evolves into an even more dynamic female fighter. In her first scene, Ms. Fisher bravely and quietly stands by her man. Then, as a barrage of new incriminating information about her husband continues to tumble down, Judy gathers more strength with each newsflash. By the final scene Judy is a successfully published author and a dauntless woman, absolutely immune to all the flattery and faux romance Bill uses on her. She’s completely independent and all the better for her journey.
The supporting cast is equally excellent. Beth Lacke is smart and sophisticated as Bobbie; Mildred Marie Langford has the posturing and patter of a pandering Talk Show Host down perfectly; Melanie Neilan, so excellent in Steppenwolf’s “Russian Transport,” portrays Casey, Bill’s angry, opinionated teenage daughter; and young Emily Chang is quietly commanding as the couple’s adopted daughter, Cassidy.
Bruce Norris’ production, staged on Todd Rosenthal’s authentic-looking school gymnasium set, allows each of the other scenes to roll in and out of the playing space with ease. Video feed, both live and prerecorded, adds authentic immediacy to the production. Mr. Norris paces his drama with a sharp, driving urgency that commands our attention and makes us sit up and take notice. It’s contemporary, thought-provoking and bound to spark a great deal of post-production conversation. The events that grow out of the opening news conference are cleverly interspersed with Cassidy’s science presentation about the superiority of the female of the species. This intelligent play is biting and sometimes funny, while driving home the theme that users, men like Bill, must learn that this is no longer simply a man’s world.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 3-February 7 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in their Downstairs venue, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com