Can women have it all? That’s the question, engendering myriad answers, that permeates not only the feminist movement but well beyond. Gloria Steinem said women can’t have it all until there’s gender equality; Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior advisor, says that you “can have it all, but not necessarily at the same time.”
But on Saturday, the answer, no caveats or conditions, was put into action on stage in Brandon McCoy’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter at the Keegan Theatre. We learn from Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles, Uncommon Women and Others, The Sisters Rosenweig) that is answer, unfortunately, is no. You can’t have it all.
The play is set in D.C. in the ’90s where we meet Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes (Susan Marie Rhea) a 40-something doctor, senator’s daughter, and descendent of Ulysses S. Grant in the peak of her career. It’s the day of her nomination as U.S. surgeon general. In the midst of it all, her relationship with her husband Dr. Walter Abrahmson (Mark Alan Rhea), a sociology professor, falls apart when he’s caught having an affair with his 20-something former student, Quincy Quince (Brianna Letourneau), a bright new author who is among “the next generation of feminists.”
The play deeply examines gender roles and social pressures in frustrating, funny ways, and touches a rainbow of related themes: sexism, infertility, sexuality, equality, motherhood, ageism. For example, Lyssa’s best friend Dr. Judith Kaufman (Lolita Marie), an oncologist, is coming closer and closer to the realization that she may never become pregnant, despite in vitro fertilization treatments. She throws herself into the Potomac River when she learns that her final attempt to conceive has failed, but comes afloat, reliving the comical rather than tragic moment to Lyssa, saying “I can’t make life and I can’t stop death.”
Blunt and ingenious moments of humor give the actors quite a bit of good material to work from—Quincy wrote a book called Prisoner of Gender and packages her research on the rebirth of feminism as “sexism made simple”—but it forces one to pay closer attention to the casting. Mark Alan Rhea is believable as the husband in a pseudo-midlife crisis which is exacerbated by all the attention his wife receives from the media, but his performance lacked a visceral quality. There were a few pauses in his dialog that suggested he flubbed lines. Morrow McCarthy (Slice Hicks), a longtime family friend who is closer to Walter than Lyssa, is portrayed as a 30-year-old gay, conservative columnist, and elicits a mature performance.
There are moments that serve as a reminder that women’s version of wanting it all means successfully juggling a fabulous career, keeping it together at home. and giving birth to 2.5 kids (Lyssa has two boys), but it’s right when things appear to be going well that it all comes tumbling down. It’s not the affair that ruins Lyssa’s opportunity to make history, but when Morrow, via Walter, offhandedly tells a primetime TV reporter that she’d once misplaced a jury summons and never performed her civic duty. During the interview, Lyssa is asked questions that would never be posed to a man who could potentially serve as the nation’s doctor: What is your relationship with your mother (and if it’s bad, what’s wrong with you)? Are you too career-zealous to relate to women who stay at home with their kids? Will you be too aggressive?
In the end, aside from the social examination of whether women will ever be satisfied, Wasserstein puts humor center stage and lets her characters get the last laugh on gender politics. Quincy Quince levels the playing field with this one-liner on the new wave of feminism: “We [women] want to come home to a warm penis.”