Generally, when we look back on the Victorian era we see a world created and operated by and for men, with women quietly serving as faithful, largely irrelevant wives and attendant mothers. But isn’t it just as likely that in that culture of disempowered women they might also have created a separate society of women just like themselves. In Caitlin Gilman’s excellent new play “My Dear Miss Chancellor” we are delivered to just that world. The young Miss Janet Chancellor on her first trip to London, after growing up in the country, meets the vivacious and mature Miss Hazel McGovern, who immediately falls in lust with her and abandons her previous lover, Mrs. Constance Shepard. Shepard will take a new lover in Miss Browning, but that will not resolve her hurt and hunger for revenge. Although there is a great deal of lesbian passion in this play, that is not what it is about. It is about a young woman finding her way in the world by marrying an established man and still maintaining a relationship with a woman who understands her much better than he ever will. The women gather in a private club to learn fencing, and these women attack one another with a wide variety of swords and emotional skills. The resolution is tragic, but not especially surprising, and we know that it will remain with Miss Chancellor for the remainder of her life.
The script is really quite brilliant. There is not a line of unnecessary dialogue and never a moment when we feel like the playwright is working to make the speech sound authentic to the period and the people involved. The action is fast moving and the relationships both touching and believable. Much of that credit should also go to the fine cast and the excellent direction by Elizabeth Hershly. Perhaps what I liked most about this script is that it never felt didactic, but always deeply human. That would only be possible if the performances were equally human.
As the young Miss Chancellor, Sophia Franzella was vivacious, thoroughly committed to finding a new world to live in, passionate and erotic without it ever feeling forced, and very effective in showing the growth that results from this enormous experience. Equally convincing was Tracy Leigh as Hazel McGovern. Although she is a woman who has never repressed her inner passions, we still have the sense that she contains a vast world of emotion and desire that has never been fully satisfied. Leigh is a very talented actress and this character allows her to reveal a complexity and maturity that makes all the action deeply satisfying. Although Miss Chancellor always looks up to Hazel as a role model, neither of them ever questions who the other really is, only how valid the choices they make are. As the jilted lover, Mrs. Shepard, Jasmine Joshua was both powerful and somewhat despicable. Her new companion, Miss Browning was played by Alysha Curry as a woman who really only has a physical connection with Shepard, and not the sort of depth or commitment in the relationship that Shepard had with Hazel.
The remainder of this fairly large cast was uniformly effective in creating the characters and times of the story. In particular I liked Mike Gilson as Mr. Hubert Wendell, the man Janet wants to marry to insure her financial stability and to acquire a place in London, so that she can remain close with Hazel. He was able to create a man who is decent and respectable, if not at all aware of who this young woman is or what her needs might be. The costumes by Samantha Armitage were really quite outstanding, from the formal ball gowns to the underwear in which they fence at the club. The dialect coach, Katya Landau, is also to be commended. The subtle but very effective cello accompaniment is performed by Tracy Hagen and Ian Johnston.
The Annex Theatre is committed to new work, and that sometimes means work that still has a way to go before it is fully realized. This was not that sort of play. Delightful, engaging, provocative and moving throughout, “My Dear Miss Chancellor” is a fine example of just how finished and effective a play can be, even when presented in a very limited space. That is especially true when you have such unlimited talent delivering it.
PICTURED ABOVE: Sophie Franzella and Tracy Leigh star in “My Dear Miss Chancellor” by Caitlin Gilman
PHOTO BY: Joe Iano