The Yellow Wallpaper
May 16- June 21
this article appeared in the Piedmont Post on May 23, 2015
Central Works and Gary Grave’s stage adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic feminist horror story The Yellow Wallpaper is remarkably chilling and effective. As Jane, who is taking a “rest cure” prescribed by her physician husband, Elena Wright transmits a quality of repressed rage with her every word, a “sub-pattern” not unlike the one she describes as lurking within the titular paper. Cybele D’Ambrosio’s viola playing (which includes her original compositions) complements Wright’s monologue perfectly, and her otherwise silent presence on the stage makes her seem an embodiment of the woman Jane sees attempting to escape the pattern. Debbie Shelley’s props are well chosen—a white wrought metal bedstead, a dressing table with an empty frame where the mirror should be, and rings and chains on the wall that are explained as vestiges of the room’s former life as a nursery and gymnasium. As Wright traces the pattern of the wrought iron bedstead with her fingers, it is easy to imagine her eye tracing the pattern of the wallpaper, which she describes as “loll[ing] like a broken neck,” a suicidal urge manifesting as an external rather than an internal pressure. The lighting casts satisfyingly Gothic shadows, and Gregory Scharpen’s sounds of distant baby cries and rattling bars complete the atmosphere of escalating madness. The play’s language comes almost entirely from the original, which well deserves its status as a classic of feminist literature. “I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of… symmetry,” says Jane, describing the madness of a society that hinders the full personhood of half of its population as much as the wallpaper itself. As she reflects on her husband’s patronizing tone, and on the collusion of their families in her confinement, Jane’s madness begins to seem a sort of liberation, or at least the nearest possible route for her escape from a world that actively represses her individuation. The Berkeley City Club is a great setting for this story of Victorian suffocation, and I continue to be impressed with Central Works’ clever use of the small theater space inside the Julia Morgan building. The Yellow Wallpaper is Central Works’ 48th world premiere in their 25 years of making plays through a collaborative workshop process, and if you have yet to check them out, I recommend you do so. The Yellow Wallpaper is but the latest example of their thought-provoking and dramatically resonant work.