I consider myself a bibliophile. If it’s been written in the last 50 years or so, chances are I’ve either read it, know about it or it’s currently on hold for me at the Public Library. You can imagine how excited I was when I heard that Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park was doing another literary adaptation this season, after last year’s wonderful production of Stephen King’s “Misery.”
The selection for this season is “Alias Grace,” based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. It fictionalizes the true story of Grace Marks (portrayed by Caroline Hewitt), a woman convicted of double homicide in Northern Canada in the mid-1800s. Rather than being a courtroom drama, the show begins after Grace has already been convicted of the crime. This in spite of her claims not to remember anything from the night of the murders. It details her relationship with a psychiatric doctor, Simon Jordan (played by Grant Goodman), as he attempts to answer whether Grace is, in fact, responsible for the murders, and if so, why did she do it?
“Alias Grace” touches on so many topics heard in the headlines today: mental and physical abuse, the effects of early childhood trauma, lack of understanding in relation to mental health, sexual politics and liberation just to name a few. As someone who is expecting her first two children soon, the point that landed the hardest was the lack of choice women have faced over the centuries when it came to their own autonomy. Mrs. Rachel Lavell (played with aplomb by Cincinnati stage veteran Annie Fitzpatrick), a patron of Simon Jordan during his study of Grace, makes a flippant comment at one point that she has not heard her given name in ages, she is always referred to as her husband’s wife. While Rachel seems to accept this lack of autonomy par-for-the-course, Grace watches with helplessness as a friend struggles with how to handle an unwanted pregnancy. Keep in mind, this is the end of the Victorian era, when a simple kiss on the sidewalk could taint a girl’s reputation for life.
“Alias Grace” pulls no punches when it comes to the trials and suffering of women. For anyone familiar with Margaret Atwood’s body of work, this revelation comes as no surprise, but that does not mean it carries any less weight. The play’s overall message could not be more clear: women do suffer, but because of and often in spite of this, they are also the most resilient of people.
This show cannot be referenced without specific mention of the newly renovated space in which it is staged. The renamed Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre has been outfitted with black walls and more spacious seats on all three sides of the stage, giving it a traditional black box theater feel. The Shelterhouse has been known for years as the Playhouse venue where new and experimental works are staged. Now, the facilities allow for more accessibility and comfort for all audience members. The Shelterhouse renovation is just the first step in a major revitalization for Playhouse, and if its improvements are any indicator, there are going to be plenty of fabulous enhancements made in the months to come!
Amanda Carr is the Gift Processing and Donor Services Coordinator at ArtsWave.