Jaclyn Backhaus describes her writing process as informed by a practice called Delighted Listening; as she describes it in a program essay, this means listening to plays (plays one writes, witnesses, or collaborates on) with two questions in mind: “What delights you? And, What do you want to know more about?” Her new play, Wives, is full of small parcels of delight, cheerily subversive feminist soap bubbles lifting off the surface of its disparate scenes. But it also skims a little too lightly over that surface in the light of the second question, traveling to four different worlds plus a few pop-music interludes in a zippy 75 minutes, without giving quite enough chances to know more about anything. There’s some great stuff in it–I never knew just how much I needed to see Queen Catherine de Medici calling her dead husband a “fuckhead” or Ernest Hemingway’s three ex-wives doing their best Hemingway impressions–but the impulse to cut to the chase and move on to the next delight also can lead to blurting out tidy morals rather than actually negotiating with the questions raised.
So: four worlds, four characters apiece, many but not all of them wives, and some of them interrogating the very meaning of the word “wife” in surprising ways. There’s a sixteenth-century French king (Henri II, if anyone’s counting, played with delicious self-regard by Sathya Sridharan) alongside his queen (Catherine de Medici, played with equally delicious hauteur by Purva Bedi), his mistress (Aadya Bedi, mean-girling with the best of them), and his cook (Adina Verson, giving a hilarious mashup of Julia Child, a belowstairs character from Downton Abbey, and a doddering aunt telling the shaggiest dog story ever). There’s the recently deceased Ernest Hemingway giving his own eulogy (Sridharan), and those three former wives–Hadley Richardson (Purva Bedi), Martha Gellhorn (Aadya Bedi), and Mary Hemingway (Verson)–swapping tales post-funeral, with the tart-tongued Gellhorn and Richardson goading the meeker Hemingway into letting out her own frustration and rage. Third comes a showdown in Rajasthan in the closing days of the British Raj, between Patterson, an officer of the crown (Verson), and the triad of an ailing maharaja (Sridharan), his maharani (Aadya Bedi), and his healer/mistress Roop Rai (Purva Bedi), whose shared familial bond contrasts sharply with Patterson’s pompous hauteur. And it all comes together, sort of, in the present-ish day at Oxbridge University under the gaze of Virginia Woolf, as a Witches’ Club allows a young South Asian student, Swarn (Aadya Bedi), to connect with the spirits and the histories of the grandparents whose name she shares but whose lives she barely knows. The stories connect thematically and via a few cross-references, but not in any linear way.
Backhaus’s lens on history is sidelong and particular, and she explores her invented worlds in heightened language that mixes brash and profane contemporary slang interchangeably with more generically period diction. Margo Bordelon’s direction is crisp and crackling with energy; all four actors spark off each other deliciously until softer emotions are brought out late in the piece. The simple but allusion-rich design elements in Reid Thompson’s set and Valérie Thérèse Bart’s costumes whisk us from place to place and time to time; the interstitial transitions, with their “man” and “wife” t-shirts in bright colors, feel almost superfluous.
The stories swerve around the “great men”–the king, the maharaja, the revered writer–to peer sardonically into the emotional bonds, and emotional wreckage, left behind and re-formed in the dregs of power: Unexpected affection between former rivals for the same man’s attention. The peculiar clear-sightedness with which a servant relates to her mistress(es). An exquisite tenderness among the members of the maharaja’s family, where the currents of colonial power intersect with patriarchy to make the maharaja function as both master and wife.
This thematic intersection carries through to the fourth segment, and casts a new light on the casting of South Asian actors in three of each segment’s four roles; the play, in the end, gestures toward building lineages and narratives for ourselves, creating a narrative web of our own forebears (foremothers?) from history and from our own pasts, rather than being bound by surface narratives and linear structural rules. The disempowered, here, stand in for “wives” whatever their gender: the narratives repressed, the alliances unnoted, the previous generations forgotten in their very ordinariness. Swarn reaches through time to claim her grandparents, both themselves named Swarn, and to claim the inherent rightness of her own being in a world that too often marginalizes her on multiple axes.
I do wish Backhaus sometimes resisted the impulse to lay out the play’s terms so explicitly; the connections and shared themes could be more powerful if left to simmer in the audience’s mind. I don’t need to be told that the alliance between Catherine and Diane after the king’s death, when they’ve been bitter rivals before, is “a subversion of what everyone wants and expects to happen” or that Hemingway’s wives “can never write ourselves because he wrote our history for us.” All of that is in the play, and if it were left a little more subtextual in the historical segments, the more straightforward emotional revelations of the final scene would also, I think, hit harder.
Bordelon and Backhaus’s decision to turn down the stylization in the last segment, to keep the encounter between Swarn and her grandparents in a subdued register, makes the ending touching and gentle, bringing the play’s more fanciful elements down to earth, but defangs some of its wilder, more anarchic energy. The piece lands in a place of radical acceptance as a means of change–which is in itself a subversive way to approach power. Still, what will stick with me is the glee of Martha Gellhorn, Hadley Richardson, and Mary Hemingway dousing a marlin in good-quality alcohol and chanting around it as it burned.