‘Blue Stockings,’ Little Theatre of Alexandria’s latest, is a triumph

A stellar cast depicts a not-so-distant Victorian-era women's rights battle.

The outrage in the theater was palpable in the first few minutes, when Dr. Maudsley (Robert Heinly) thundered through the prologue: “There are some women who choose to overlook their natural maternal instincts in favor of academia…. A woman who expends her energy energizing her brain does so at the expense of her vital organs.”

A ”my body, my choice” moment to the nth degree. And the smartypants historical drama Blue Stockings, Little Theatre of Alexandria’s latest triumph, is all about degrees — those coveted academic ones; the boiling point of your blood while witnessing the ruling gender class trample over women’s rights; and, finally, the uneasy acceptance that political change occurs mostly by degrees.

The setting is Cambridge University — the first British school to admit women — in Victorian-era 1896, when the women’s suffrage movement was peaking. And the first hint of conflict is the backdrop — Girton College appears as a fortress upstage that is smeared in rouge.

Ilyana Rose-Dávila (Maeve Sullivan), Melissa Dunlap (Celia Willbond), Elizabeth Replogle (Miss Blake), Tegan Cohen (Carolyn Addison), Madeline Byrd (Tess Moffat) in ‘Blue Stockings.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

We meet four freshmen women (the term alone is sexist) who share a study group: star-gazing Tess (Madeline Byrd), the nimble-minded Celia (Melissa Dunlap), globe-trotting Carolyn (Tegan Cohen), and the mysterious Maeve (Ilyana Rose-Dávila), who doesn’t speak a lot but seems to have the most to say. They’re all leading-lady stock, spot-on as trailblazers. But Cohen and Byrd, the show’s linchpin, deliver breathtaking banner performances.

The term “blue stockings” throws shade to educated women who, despite gaining admittance, were denied college credentials and unable to graduate. (Dorothy’s Scarecrow pops to mind — what’s the value of a piece of paper, anyway, and why is a marriage certificate so prized instead?) Like a scarlet letter, “blue stockings” marked female scholars for defying conventions and made them unmarriable (unmalleable?). And in a show that has a garment in its title, wardrobe plays a huge role. Tess, as the star, always wears blue.

The costume design by Joan Lawrence is simply smashing, from the pantaloons the “girls” are initially forced to wear, a form of hazing, to the drapery blouses and smart suits in rich Victorian tones that are thankfully devoid of the confining corsets and bustles of the day. Another act of defiance — or perhaps mercy.

Tess aspires to become an astrophysicist and, maybe by virtue of being starry-eyed, faces the burden of choosing between knowledge and love. Tragically, a woman could not have it all back then, and if you asked any woman in attendance — and the audience was composed mostly of women — they’d be hard-pressed to argue it’s any easier today. The rights battle wages on within our highest court right now, and that’s what makes it so vital to experience this timeless tour de force written by Jessica Swale and powerfully directed by Marzanne Claiborne. Claiborne’s attention to detail forces one to pay attention, and, indeed, we have no choice.

Laced with hard lessons, the material is also quite educational, as the audience is auditing the students’ classes and debates. With so much information to absorb, the scenes are short and the pacing snappy. Claiborne serves the meatiest portions — speeches about women’s struggles — with gravity while allowing actors to frolic through British comedy bits. The result feels comfortably old-school. Classic set design (Charles Dragonelle), in which players are packed into diorama boxes but roam free outdoors, produces levity during a group visit to Tess’s dorm room, where the lone male must keep 30 inches’ distance from any female. It’s a tight squeeze, but a credit to Claiborne’s blocking and direction that it parlays as natural.

(Back row) Tegan Cohen (Carolyn Addison), Melissa Dunlap (Celia Willbond), Madeline Byrd (Tess Moffat), and Iliana Rose-Dávila (Maeve Sullivan); (front row) Robert Heinly (Dr. Maudsley/Professor Collins), Anne Hilleary (Miss Bott/Mrs. Lindley), Michael King (Holmes), Ali Cheraghpour (Edwards), James Blacker (Lloyd), and Paul Donahoe (Mr. Banks) in ‘Blue Stockings.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

The cast is sizable and each performance notably stellar. Mr. Banks (an endearing Paul Donahoe) is “an eccentric” who teaches off-book, the kind of prof who always was your favorite. Donahoe fills the bill as a staunch ally for the cause. Upon meeting the Fearless Four, he launches into explaining Isaac Newton’s laws of motion using an actual bike — symbolically inspiring the blooming scientists not to remain “inert” in their stations.

Different dialectical approaches are showcased by the encouraging Miss Blake (a stalwart Elizabeth Replogle) — who leads a memorable discourse on happiness, and also on whether the arts can save lives just as science can (yes, they can!) — versus the bombastic rhetoric of the immutable pedagogue Dr. Maudsley on the roots of hysteria, and not just the linguistic roots (read “uterus”). Liz LeBoo, as Girton headmistress Elizabeth Welsh, is Maudsley’s stoic adversary and LTA patrons’ patron saint. We want to bow to her at the end, rather than the other way around.

Paul Donahoe (Mr. Banks), Ilyana Rose-Dávila (Maeve Sullivan), Madeline Byrd (Tess Moffat), Melissa Dunlap (Celia Willbond), and Tegan Cohen (Carolyn Addison) in ‘Blue Stockings.’ Photo by Matt Liptak.

The female scholars move as a pack on campus, so naturally there’s a corresponding fraternity who both admire and pester them. And, of course, the guys don’t seem to have to work as hard — although the actors share a hardy work ethic. The affable Edwards is played with Hamilton-style camaraderie and cuteness by Ali Cheraghpour. Equally charming as Tess’s rival suitors are Will Bennett (John Paul Odle), the boy next door, and Ralph Mayhew (Michael Townsend), who’s fawning but ambitious to a fault. Townsend’s recitation of a sonnet, bolstered by Italian language coach Domenica Marchetti, slays. And combat choreography (Steve Lada) during a requisite rumble showcases the superpowers of James Blacker as Lloyd.

Michael Rufo gives an arresting cockney-English turn as Billy Sullivan, Maeve’s brother, underscoring the class struggles that pile on for some women. And Miss Bott (Anne Hilleray, who also plays a pillar of womanhood in Act Two as Mrs. Lindley) is the chaperone who’s tough as nails but also nurturing, adding an obligatory British presence. The vocal coach talents of Beverley Benda shine throughout, but especially when delineating social stature.

My only red marks appear in the technical margins. Though Sound designer Alan Wray and Special Effects Coordinator Art Snow impress by extending the action offstage (a bike crash, a shattered glass) and painting an ideal nightfall, the common hoot-hoot of a great horned owl gets misidentified as a barn owl, whose call is more eerie, like a banshee. Footnote: Great horned owls don’t even live in England. And while the lighting design by Franklin Coleman is also brilliant, the night sky lacks stars — which, in a treatise about the dreams of an astrophysicist, seems a regrettable omission.

Plenty of good nuggets are buried in the script, though, enough to stimulate women’s “vital organs” — like the reference to “keep it under your hat,” taken literally at a time when women actually wore hats.

And by “vital organs,” I mean their brains.

Running Time: Two hours plus a 15-minute intermission.

Blue Stockings plays through March 19, 2022, at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA. For tickets ($21–$24), call (703) 683-0496 or go online.

COVID Safety: LTA requires all persons attending performances to provide proof of full Covid vaccination and to wear a mask inside LTA (including during the performance). LTA’s complete COVID-19 Attendance Policy is here.


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