by Carol Rocamora
A shiver went through me, watching the title character of Penelope Skinner’s Linda giving a lecture to the audience. I thought the ghost of Heidi had passed over us.
You know who I mean, don’t you? I’m referring to the protagonist of Wendy Wasserstein’s award winning play The Heidi Chronicles – that independent spirit who personified “I am woman, hear me roar” in 1989, when the play was written. And though Skinner’s Linda, played by the terrific Janie Dee, has a British accent and is a decade older, like her predecessor, she’s articulating what it means to be a woman in her own time – namely, today.
We first meet Linda, in Lynne Meadows’s absorbing production, giving a power point presentation at Swan, the London-based beauty corporation where she’s worked for almost two decades. Her signature product is an anti-aging cream, and she’s the personification of its success. At 55, she’s the self-defined “ideal woman” – professional, successful, confident, in charge, and a perfect size 10 (which she’s maintained for decades, she boasts.) “When women get to the age of 50, they start to feel invisible” she explains, adding that older women in ads are either Helen Mirren or women pushing meals on wheels. “Visibility” is Linda’s mission for women over 50, and she’s determined to promote it at all costs.
But Linda is fighting on a lot of fronts – alone. At the office, she’s threatened by Amy (Molly Briggs), a gorgeous, ambitious 25-year-old who lusts after her job. At home, the battle is even more formidable. There’s Alice (Jennifer Ikeda), Linda’s 25-year-old daughter, an agoraphobe, self-mutilator and social pariah, struggling to recover from the public shaming by her vengeful ex-boyfriend who’s posted porn photos of her on the internet. There’s Bridget (Molly Ranson), Linda’s self-absorbed, undefined 15- year-old daughter, who’s fixated on finding a suitable Shakespearean monologue for her high school auditions (she refuses Ophelia, and opts for King Lear). Neither daughter knows who she is – but one thing’s for certain, they don’t want to be like mum.
The men in her life are no help, either. Neil, her husband (Donald Sage Mackay) is suffering from a mid-life crisis while cheating with one of the girls in his band. Her boss Dave (John C. Vennema) promotes Amy over Linda; and Luke (Maurice Jones), a manipulative office temp, seduces Linda with his smarmy spiritualism.
As Walt Spangler’s sleek set rotates round and round, faster and faster, from workplace to home place, Linda’s world spins out of control. Once again, she faces the audience, but this time it’s with a hard-hitting, truth-telling power point about aging. “What does getting older mean when you’re a woman”? Linda declares in a self-destructive protest that shocks her corporate audience and threatens all that she’s accomplished. “Worthless, pointless, vanishing….We peak at 16.”
On one level, the female characters in Linda come across as walking, talking heads for current women’s issues. But thanks to Meadows’s swift, skilled direction, Janie Dee’s powerhouse performance, and the excellent cast, Linda is an entertaining, engaging inquiry into what it means to be a woman today. And just when you think that Skinner’s plot is getting too schematic, she pulls the rug out from under you with a surprising, bitter-tasting conclusion.
Meanwhile, you’ll leave the theatre with Alice’s advice to her younger sister Bridget ringing in your ears – about not being like their mother, and defining womanhood on their own instead. As Alice finally sheds her “onesie” (a hilarious, fuzzy skunk costumed by Jennifer von Mayrhauser) and prepares to walk out the door and face the world, she delivers the final knock-out punch: “Don’t believe what they tell you – about what you have to be like.”
Linda, by Penelope Skinner, directed by Lynne Meadow, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage 1, until April 2. – Run time: 2 hrs, 15 min.