Director Robin Witt has a special gift for bringing vivid, pulsating life to lesser-known British plays from the mid-20th century.
Her 2014 Griffin Theatre production of Ena Lamont Stewart’s rarely seen “Men Should Weep” — about Depression-era life in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland — could not have been more masterful, and earned Jeff Awards for best direction and production. And her earlier staging of Terence Rattigan’s 1941 play, “Flare Path,” about the residents of a hotel near an English air force base during World War II, captured that era with remarkable authenticity.
Now, Witt, who spends much of the academic year as an assistant professor of directing at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, has returned to the Griffin to stage the Midwest premiere of John Van Druten’s “London Wall,” a play that explores the lives and love affairs of the women employed as shorthand typists in a busy solicitor’s office in 1930’s London.
Notable for its realistic depiction of office life, as well as its probing of the dreams and desires of its female characters, “London Wall” was first produced in 1931. But this “lost” romantic drama by the author of “I Am a Camera” (a source of “Cabaret”) and “Bell, Book and Candle,” didn’t have a London revival until 2013, when, after 82 years, it was produced at the Finborough Theatre. New York’s Mint Theater Company, which specializes in the resurrection of forgotten plays, followed suit in 2014.
When: In previews; opens Jan. 17, and runs through Feb. 14
Where: Griffin Theatre at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $28 (previews); $36 (regular)
Info: (866) 811-4111; www.griffintheatre.com
“I didn’t see either of those revivals,” said Witt, “but I always keep my eye on what Mint Theater is doing, and when I read about their production of this play I was drawn to it.”
“Then, Bill Massolia [Griffin’s artistic director] just happened to ask me to look for ‘a pre-1950s chestnut’ that would balance out the company’s season of two contemporary shows — ‘Pocatello’ [which recently enjoyed a much-acclaimed run] and ‘Bat Boy: The Musical,’ opening in June. I found three plays, but this one just fit the bill for now. The female characters are so well-drawn. And I feel a huge responsibility to the female artists in this city, especially since ‘Brilliant Adventures,’ the last play I did [at Steep Theatre] was all about men.”
Although “London Wall” is set in 1931, Witt was surprised by how contemporary it felt when dealing with “the entitled patriarchy.”
“That’s such a buzzword term, but it’s heavy on my mind these days,” said the director. “Yet while this play takes the issue seriously, it also pokes fun at it. Van Druten found an interesting balance of tones, and I love a particular example of ‘genderfication’ that occurs as one of the female shorthand-typists notifies the big boss she is quitting. His response? ‘But, Miss Janus, you’ve been here ten years…. Why, I look on you as part of the firm. Almost’.”
As to how she works with her actors to capture the essence of a period piece, Witt said: “Initially I want them to come as who they are right now. Then we eliminate things that are too contemporary, if only because the formal hair and makeup of 1931 might rule out certain gestures. They must find a way to embrace the more dated or melodramatic things by sort of reaching underneath them, yet keeping the right pacing for the banter is important. So is trying to make what might have seemed shocking in 1931 feel true for current audiences.”
As Witt did research for “London Wall” she became aware of the many “professional plays” written in the 1930s. She also discovered the reason for this.
“About 750,000 British men were killed serving in World War I, so many women [and those without husbands were dubbed ‘surplus women’] needed to go to work either because they were widows, or because there was such a shortage of potential mates. The terrible thing is that they were paid about one-tenth the salary men earned, and no money was put into their pensions because ‘their husbands would have one’.”
“These young women often lived in dreary bedsits, or with their parents — some of whom were maids and butlers, or millworkers, and had to struggle to pay for their daughters’ shorthand and typing courses. In a sense, though, this was the beginning of the middle class in the U.K. And when the men who did return from war rejected ‘sissy office jobs,’ secretarial work became a female profession.”
Of course the typewriter was the essential tool for these secretaries. And while one antique example will be visible on stage, Witt noted, “mostly we hear the sound of typewriters from a room that is out of sight.”
Next up for the director will be “Wastewater,” a snapshot of three different couples at crucial junctures in their lives, opening at Steep Theatre in July. It’s the work of Simon Stephens, the contemporary British writer whose plays (“Harper Regan,” “Motortown,” “Pornography”), also have proven to be right up Witt’s alley.