WHO: Laurie Jones, Katie Jones, Mandy Stertz, Kimberly Van Ness
WHERE: Asylum @ Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre
WHY: In 1871, Laura D. Fair murdered her lover on a boat off the coast of San Francisco. Laura’s trial became less about the murder and more about judging her moral character. This ensemble play might have made an interesting judge-and- jury, real-life crime drama, with a message about the treatment of women in 1871, but that is not this play. FAIR, delivers the feminist message in an inventive and entertaining way… a play-within- a-play, executed in a hilarious melodramatic style (complete with fake mustaches) and delivers a powerful indictment of Laura D. Fair’s unfair treatment.
FAIR opens with the cast onstage preparing for a performance of FAIR. One of the actors asks if she is playing “Susan Banthony” which is corrected to “Susan B. Anthony” by another cast member. Those clever first words set the tone for the play which jumps back and forth in time in a nimble yet cohesive way. I could tell immediately that this work had been developed over a period of time: the fast pace and furious blocking, the actors’ physical agility and focus, the quick blackouts and scene changes, the clever use of minimal props, and the writing—witty, provocative, assured and meaningful. It takes time for all these elements to coalesce into a well-made production.
And sure enough, the program states that The Wishbone Collective began this ensemble-devised play in the fall of 2014. They began “scraping together information about “twice-widowed, twice-divorced” Laura D. Fair—a woman so scandalous she was placed among the ranks of history and literature’s top-shelf femme fatales and yet [she has] somehow faded from memory.” Much of the dialogue is from a primary source—the recorded transcripts and letters printed in the “Official Report of the Trial of Laura D. Fair for the Murder of Alex. P. Crittenden”. There are five other sources listed in the program as well. Wishbone did their research.
There is never a question that Laura D. Fair is guilty of the murder. In this telling, Laura Fair’s guilt is almost beside the point “I did it. I don’t deny it” she states early on, and so Laura’s morality becomes the focus of the prosecution. The trial becomes a titillating media sensation and where much of the play’s hilarious social commentary unfolds.
The public vilification of someone who challenged society’s conventions by having many lovers and husbands is compelling. Making the trial a melodrama is a stroke of genius. The words are from actual court records but are delivered in a such a way that underscore the trial’s ridiculousness. Witnesses are called to remark on Laura’s “reputation of chastity” to which each replies some iteration of “bad” and “real bad.” She is called a “she-devil” and a “vile temptress”. The prosecutor blames the combination of “a controlling man” and the defendant’s “menstrual cycle”, stating Laura was a “victim of circumstance…and her own biology”. (That line got huge laughs.)
FAIR is a complicated tale woven into an entertaining melodramatic format. It made me laugh, it made me think, and it made me feel how unfair society still is to women in so many ways. The next person who says a woman is the way she is is because of PMS needs to read about Laura D. Fair. One more show on June 16th !!