Mary Woolley (Stacy Ross) introduces herself by saying, “I’m like a bull in a china shop.” It’s 1901 and she’s about to become the 11th president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. You sense an unspoken ellipsis in the way that Ross delivers the line. Woolley’s omitting an affectionate take on the word “dyke” but proudly suggests that’s it’s on the tip of her tongue. That state of being in and yet not exactly out of the closet is the central conflict in Bryna Turner’s Bull in a China Shop (at Aurora Theatre through Dec. 8). The playwright dwells, not on the sorrow or the struggle for liberation, but on the character’s self-acceptance, clear vision and the contentment and passion that Woolley shares with her partner Jeannette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong).
In each successive scene, you can hear how Turner has assembled the character from close readings of her subject’s papers. She extracts, shapes and conveys Woolley’s witty voice with intelligence and confidence. And she’s written a period piece that’s anything but dry and dutiful. Turner presents Woolley’s lifelong relationship with Marks as an anchor in a storm and as the turbulent storm itself. Marks claimed her independence as an author and an activist but when Woolley offered her a teaching post at Mount Holyoke so that they could be together, she accepted it.
Woolley and Marks disagree and argue and challenge each other’s entrenched ways of thinking. We see their independent minds, not in combat, but in the pursuit of enlightenment, intellectual achievement and political rights. It’s a smart and engaging play that doesn’t alienate the audience with a sterile version of academia. Bull in a China Shop, directed by Dawn Monique Williams, also moves along briskly without feeling rushed or hurried. When the play lingers on a love scene, the pacing is exactly right.
Turner includes three supporting characters who offer a certain degree of comic relief or antagonism. I saw Jasmine Milan Williams perform a solemn role a couple of months ago in San Francisco and she looked glum or bummed out. As Pearl, one of Marks’ students, Williams was fully alive and radiant with joy. Pearl’s infatuated with her professor and makes it known on every occasion that she’s ready, willing and able to be taken away in her arms. Williams expresses her delight in every flirty or lovelorn line reading. She brought the house down with a soliloquy that rivals Romeo’s balcony scene with his Juliet.
Woolley and Marks’ living situation is portrayed as a tense, contentious aspect of their relationship. The play’s blurry on the exact details but at the beginning of Woolley’s tenure the couple didn’t, or couldn’t for the sake of appearances, live together on campus. So Marks moves in with a roommate. We don’t find out that much about Felicity (Rebecca Schweitzer) except that she’s an ally to both women. Schweitzer was particularly expert at finding her way out of awkward moments with great comic timing.
The closest a character comes to being a villain is the tremulous Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano), President Woolley’s second in command. Welsh is the bearer of bad news and the standard-bearer of propriety. As the years pass, she makes it known that half of the alumni are withholding their donations because of Woolley and Marks’ relationship. But Mount Holyoke more than survived her lesbian tenure. Woolley held the post for nearly 40 years and the couple stayed together until she died in 1947. Bull in a China Shop pays homage to Woolley, her pioneering career and to the love of her life without ever feeling stodgy or dated. It’s the equivalent of a tonic that reminds the heart how to fizz back to life.
Bull in a China Shop, through Dec. 15, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $35-$70; 510-843-3822 or auroratheatre.org.