Glaspell’s Trifles at Rooke Theatre

 Photo courtesy of Jon Crispin   Nikki Wei ’20 and Caledonia Wilson ’19 in “Trifles.”

Photo courtesy of Jon Crispin

Nikki Wei ’20 and Caledonia Wilson ’19 in “Trifles.”

BY MIRANDA WHEELER ’19

“Well, women are used to worrying over trifles,” said Mr. Hale, played by Kylie Levy ’21 in last week’s production of Susan Glaspell’s 1916 one-act play “Trifles,” directed by Brianna Sloane. With set design by technical director Shawn Hill, lighting design by Lara Dubin, costume design by Elizabeth Lowe ’19 and dramaturgy from Heidi Holder, the one-act play opened Rooke Theatre’s Fall 2018 season.

John Wright has been murdered. His wife’s in custody. A neighboring farmer, Mr. Hale, discovered her sitting in a rocking chair after her husband’s death. The County Attorney is searching for a motive. Local women Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters were sent to gather her things — but instead find more in a sewing basket than the men can find at the scene of the crime.

Situated on an Idahoan farm in the dead of winter, the play takes place entirely in the Wright family’s kitchen. Although the premise of the show is the investigation of local man John Wright’s murder, the play comments on the need for women’s representation in the justice system and the emotional abuse that women of the period suffered, forced to spend so much time isolated in their homes. Much like the murder itself, the central figures of the late Mr. Wright and his wife Minnie are kept off-stage.

According to her director’s note, Sloane’s thematic priority was exploring “women’s agency and silence, examining the nature of the law and who it served.” She noted that the script was likely a reaction to the emergence of male-centric detective novels and the peak of the suffrage movement. As a result, the play, which she called a “subversive and suspenseful little mystery,” deliberately manifests as a female-centric production, focused on community members Mrs. Peters (Nikki Wei ’20), wife of Sheriff Peters (Sophie Kitch-Peck ’20) and farmer’s wife Mrs. Hale (Caledonia Wilson ’19).

Dramaturg Heidi Holder, whose job it is to reference the source text and forge a connection between the play and the audience, said of “Trifles,” “From its very opening, Susan Glaspell’s little Molotov cocktail of a play lures us into judging its central but never-seen character, and this judgment will take place in the woman’s [Mrs. Wright’s] own kitchen.” She went on to emphasize the importance of “Trifles” as a short but poignant feminist piece with a lasting impact: “It has proven durable, compelling and persistently relevant.”

Glaspell described the germination of the story in similar terms, looking at what it meant for women to be in the kitchen. “[I] looked a long time at that bare little stage. After a time the stage became a kitchen — a kitchen there all by itself… then the door at the back opened and people all bundled up came in — two or three men, I wasn’t sure which but sure enough about the two women, who hung back, reluctant to enter.”

The production is grounded in realism with expressionist elements, found nowhere more prominently than in Hill’s stunning set. The towering back wall that reaches just beyond the proscenium arch emphasizes an authentic restored cook stove from the period, a donation from the Good Time Stove Company and Three Sisters Sanctuary. A log cabin quilt pattern inspired the diamond-shaped design of the wall’s wood, leading to a port for the stove’s smoke exhaust. Lighting design from Dubin included light filtering through the cracks in the walls, a tribute to original homesteader home designs without insulation to guard against brutal winters. Harsh cold tones overtook the stage as men entered, and warm hues filled the set with humanity when the women were left alone to resume their own quiet investigation.

The theatre department’s production featured a powerful performance by Wei as the repressed-until-pressured Mrs. Peters, including a memorable monologue about the trauma of witnessing a boy kill her kitten with a hatchet as a child. Wilson played a robust and driven Mrs. Hale, leading a crusade to realize Mrs. Wright’s motive for murdering her husband.

From the earliest moments of the show, Wei’s performance conveyed a character that knew all too well how to survive as a woman restricted by the binary gender roles of the early 20th century, which dictated that a woman’s slightest misstep or exercising of personal power was ridiculed or silenced entirely. As the Sheriff’s wife, she is told she’s “married to the law”— but the choice to interpret that direction by playing a cautious, almost invisible character was a powerful contrast to Wilson’s direct Mrs. Hale. The juxtaposition of two women with very different personalities strengthened the commentary of the play by demonstrating that all women were powerless in 1916, treated the same and expected to live the same way, despite their differences in personality, outspokenness or behavior. “Trifles,” which famously depicted women leading a murder investigation during a time period when juries were all male, is significant because of its discussion of the early 20th century marginalization of women, prior to the 19th Amendment and the employment liberation of the ‘We-Can-Do-It’ war effort.

Rooke Theatre’s fall season continues with Keith Hamilton Cobb’s visiting performance of American Moor Nov. 8-11 and The House of Bernarda Alba Dec. 6-9.

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