michelle milne

Bag & Baggage’s ‘The Best of Everything’: Full Frontal Female

Despite strong performances, woman-centric production ultimately fails to fully flesh out its female characters.

By BRETT CAMPBELL AND MARIA CHOBAN

Bag & Baggage Productions has trumpeted its new production of The Best of Everything as a triumph of female theater: a play adapted by a woman (Julie Kramer) from a novel by a woman (Rona Jaffe’s 1958 book by the same title), directed by a woman (Michelle Milne), mostly designed by women (costumes: Melissa Heller, scenic: Megan Wilkerson, lighting: Molly Stowe) and starring mostly women.

With all that estrogen involved, and the source material’s proto-feminist take on the sexist ‘50s American office culture, you’d expect this new production (the first on the West Coast) to explode the stereotypes of women that the novel and play strive so hard to puncture. But it actually succeeds mostly in one major respect that’s not the one the play intends.

Bag&Baggage Productions' "The Best of Everything." Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Bag&Baggage Productions’ “The Best of Everything.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Certainly everyone had feminist intentions. The author of 16 books (one titled Mr. Right is Dead), Brooklyn-born Jaffe founded an organization to promote women writers, and, decades before Mad Men, BoE, along with other seminal — make that ovular — books of the era like The Feminine Mystique, published five years later, won notoriety for its scathing portrait of a sexist society’s effect on the women it repressed. Jaffe’s book traced several characters in a New York publishing firm similar to the one she worked in herself when she wrote the novel.

The play, which premiered in 2012, presents characters representative of the era’s various female stereotypes — the naive Midwesterner shamed for her normal sex drive (spunkily played by Kaia Hillier in one of the show’s best performances); the driven, career-oriented Radcliffe grad (the central character, portrayed by B&B resident actor Cassie Greer) who embodies the coming second wave feminist generation; the icy, bitchy executive (Morgan Cox’s Amanda Farrow) who has to repress her humanity and femininity to claw her way near (but never all the way to) the top in an aggressive man’s world; the superficially sexually adventurous Gregg Adams (played by B&B resident actor Arianne Jacques) who secretly longs for a traditional marriage; the prudish repressed virgin Mary Agnes Russo (hilariously played by B&B resident actor Jessi Walters) who derides women who actually acknowledge the natural sexual appetites that she herself appears afraid to unleash. In her program note for this West Coast premiere, director Milne promises that the arc of the play will show the reality of the women busting out of those cultural stereotypes.

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