The 1991 BBC production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls made one concession for the TV audience. With the playwright’s approval, the director moved one short scene from the middle of the play to the very beginning. With this small but significant change, the viewer can more easily identify Marlene as the protagonist — well before the story gets underway. Theater purists will be happy to know that A.C.T. remains faithful to the original script. Neophytes unaccustomed with Churchill’s work may be unsettled by the cryptic language and odd assortment of characters in the first scene. But as we discover more about Marlene’s background, it’s not the dialogue alone that’s disorienting. Churchill takes an unorthodox approach to narrative structure and rearranges the linear movement of time.
The opening scene is set inside Marlene’s (Michelle Beck) posh London flat. She’s about to welcome guests over for a celebratory dinner. Marlene works at an employment agency and she’s just been promoted to managing director. She’s climbing the corporate ladder, over one of her male coworkers, at the same time that Margaret Thatcher has become prime minister of the U.K. Churchill doesn’t draw an exact or obvious parallel between them. But the play does carefully examine a cultural shift at the start of the 1980s. Can Marlene gain power at the office and have a fulfilling personal life? Can a woman have it all?
The women who appear at her door suggest, in an allusive way, that she can’t. Instead of friends and members of her family, a random group of fictional and historical characters walk into her dining room. Are they summoned from the dead or merely dreamed up in Marlene’s head? She seems familiar with everyone, as if she’s met them all before. There’s the Victorian adventurer Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) who defied 19th century conventions by travelling the world. Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) from the Middle Ages, stoned to death for posing as a man. Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), a 13th century Japanese concubine. Dull Gret (Summer Brown), who’s been extracted from a Bruegel painting, and the folktale heroine Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams).
At the dinner table, they recount their personal trials and tribulations, except for Marlene. While each woman reveals a hardship — the loss of a child or a troubled marriage — their host only chimes in with a polite interjection when the exchanges momentarily flag. The monologues are solipsistic and they foster a dream-like quality that settles over the meal. Lady Nijo interrupts Isabella Bird. Pope Joan talks over Griselda. They listen to each other distractedly because they’re all so eager to speak, to unburden themselves. Churchill’s deliberate about the way she chooses to have them crowd and cut each other off. What develops is the simulation of naturalistic conversation that also sounds like a musical roundelay.
Marlene looks like she’s on top of the world in this fantasy. Where she’s been silent about her personal life, the other women appear to be speaking for her by proxy. Griselda, Dull Gret, Lady Nijo and Pope Joan all tell grisly, disturbing stories about losing their children. In the scene that follows, the daughter that Marlene left behind isn’t that far from the very bottom. Angie (Gabriella Momah) lives in a council flat with Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe), Marlene’s sister. She’s been raised to believe that Joyce is her mother and that Marlene is her aunt. And, like her birth mother, Angie wants out of her dead-end existence. To call her an angry adolescent would be to wildly understate her case. She has murderous thoughts about killing Joyce, which we learn about in the intense exchanges she shares with her best friend Kit (Lily Harris).
After arguing with her mother, Angie’s wily enough to find her way to her aunt’s London office. What she plans to do once she arrives there is another story. Through her eyes, Churchill gives us a revelatory glimpse into Marlene’s chilly professional life. Marlene and her coworkers are the “top girls” whose motto might read, “Every woman for herself.” As the characters in her fantasy life and in her own personal history demonstrate, this approach to life is attended by serious moral compromises. The 1980s brought financial success to women, and men, like Marlene. But that Thatcherite era was also unsympathetic to girls like Angie. Disadvantaging girls who couldn’t dream of achievement and were left to fend for themselves.
Top Girls, through Oct. 13, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St. $15-$110; 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org