Have you ever dreamed of attending one of Gertrude Stein‘s infamous salons? Wondered what it was like to rub elbows with the bohemian set and the literati? Little Wars, a play written by Steve Carl McCasland, is about as close as you can get.
On a chilly night, shortly before France surrenders to the Nazis, Gertrude (played with gravitas by Polly McKie) and her partner Alice B. Toklas (the excellent Penny Lynn White) invite a truly remarkable cast of characters over for dinner (well, mostly drinks). The all-female cast of characters including Agatha Christie (Kim Rogers), Lillian Hellman (Kimberly Faye Greenberg), and Dorothy Parker (Dorothy Weems) toss back gin and barbs at one another as the weight of the Nazi occupation looms large. A mysterious guest named Muriel Gardiner (Kristen Gehling), an American psychologist who has been smuggling Jewish men, women and children out of harm’s way, causes the guests to question what side of history they will stand on.
I can’t recall the last time I saw so many incredible personalities portrayed on stage, let alone in a cast entirely of women. Each actress brings her own strengths and vulnerabilities to her role, showing that there is more to the caricatures we normally see of these famous women. Gertrude is mad for her wife Alice, and actresses Polly McKie and Penny Lynn White share an easy chemistry. When White delivers Alice’s monologue about how she met Gertrude and fell in love, your heart may swell.
These two women, lesbians in a world where even the beginning stirrings of the gay rights movement was decades away, lead complicated political and personal lives. Stein, a supporter of Philippe Pétain who collaborated with the Nazis, was also a Jewish women who lived under the threat of capture by the same forces. This is touched on briefly in the play, but more so is Gertrude’s support both financially and emotionally for Jewish European citizens caught up in chaos of the war, including their housekeeper Bernadette (Samantha Hoefer). In Little Wars, Gertrude and Alice rescue Bernadette after she is gang raped by Nazis, and when France’s surrender is imminent, they also pay Muriel to get Bernadette safely out of the occupied territories.
As they drink more and more, the women reveal intimate details about themselves. There is no love lost between Lillian Hellman and Gertrude, who quarrel about everything from Ernest Hemingway to scotch to politics. Eventually Lillian locks herself in the bathroom to escape Gertrude’s wrath. Kimbery Faye Greenberg nails Hellman’s no-nonsense disposition, and proves to be a perfect sparring partner for Gertrude Stein. Dorothy Parker, played with punch by Dorothy Weems, finds solace in the bottom of a glass of gin, escaping the pain of her dismissive ex- lover and the abortion he encouraged her to have. Kim Rogers plays Agatha Christie as a woman trying to rise above the rumors surrounding her divorce, and self imposed disappearance. As Muriel, Kristen Gehling acts as a one woman Greek chorus of sorts, pulling the women out of their own heads and into the very real and dangerous reality of the impending war. With such a capable cast, Little Wars is once again proving that the indie theatre scene in New York is thriving.
Directed by Cara Picone, Little Wars runs this week at the Clarion Theatre in repertory with four other plays by Steven McCasland. For more information and tickets, visit beautifulsouptheatercollective.org