These are not your grandfather’s secretaries. Unless, of course your grandfather was a lumberjack in the fictional town of Big Bone, Oregon, in the 1990s. In that case, the women at the center of this latest Profile Theatre production very well could have known, worked with, and possibly murdered your grandfather.
Secretaries, the play, was born from the fruitful minds of the Five Lesbian Brothers playwright collective (Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, and Lisa Kron, who is one of Profile’s featured playwrights this season and the reason this show is being mounted by Profile). There are so many reasons to put on a play like this one, right now, and director Dawn Monique Williams homes in on those reasons with her skillful focus and expert direction.
For starters, there is the #MeToo movement: Women are freer to stand up and speak out about mistreatment – at least more than lumber mill secretaries in an Oregon timber town in the ’90s. The women depicted here were not free to do much: they couldn’t have sex or even eat solid food (strictly SlimFast diets all around, of course). But they took matters into their own hands once a month by murdering a lumberjack. The play centers on new secretary Patty (Claire Rigsby, a newcomer to Portland stages, who exudes the youthful naivete and excitement the role needs). Patty is so happy to be welcomed by the other secretaries, but she slowly starts to realize there’s something strange going on here.
Therein lies one of the other reasons for this play right now: men are not the only enemy women have. Sometimes, women’s expectations and demands of other women are just as difficult to navigate. That’s what Patty starts picking up on with the other secretaries in the office.
Those other secretaries are: high-strung Ashley (Kelly Godell, who was born to play this role with shrieks and facial twitches; she’d fit right in with the cast of the next Legally Blonde movie); free spirit Dawn (Jamie M. Rea), who has her eye on Patty as more than a friend; Peaches (Jen Rowe, with a side-splittingly funny, endearing, and somehow heartbreaking performance); and Susan (Andrea White, who is a delight as the unhinged head secretary, matter-of-factly uttering lines such as, “We don’t kill them because they’re bad. We kill them because we’re bad.”)
The show has more than a few cringe-worthy moments (it is about a cult of chainsaw-wielding murdering secretaries, after all), but these five actresses are all-in, relishing the opportunity to be bad in a world that asks females to just be NICE. Every performance is terrific, but Godell and Rowe are superstars, especially in their moments of breakdown.
Godell depicts Ashley’s toner-induced, time-of-the month meltdown so well it’s almost frightening. Her physicality and facial expressions hit the mark every time – and from any seat in the space at Artists Repertory Theatre’s Alder Stage. And Rowe depicts Peaches as the sweet girl who struggles with her weight and overcompensates by being nice. She wanders through the play with big-eyed wonder at the new girl, Patty, and her quirks. Which you will believe every moment of, even knowing that Peaches is already part of the clique (the secretaries literally “click” at each other, by the way). Rowe’s downward spiral from SlimFast advocate to self-flagellating sneak-eater to full-on binger is fascinating and completely entertaining to watch.
Secretaries is smart and witty, if a little hard to take at times. But that’s life (and also satire). Profile’s production more than does the Five Lesbian Brothers’ play justice, and the cast is not the only thing that’s exceptional here. Megan Wilkerson’s scenic design – several moving walls that make scene changes possible without a pause, with props (by Emily Wilken) on wheels that the actors roll in and out – contains everything and keeps the play moving even in those brief moments between dialogue. Jennifer Lin’s lighting design is so good you almost don’t notice it. And the fights – directed by Kristen Mun, and including several realistic-seeming slaps – are expertly done. This is a play by and about women, and every last one of these women – from performers to props master – carries it off effortlessly.
Profile theatre’s Secretaries continues through July 1 on the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.