In three plays of the eight plays at the Festival of Independent Theatres, now playing at the Bath House Cultural Center through August 3, a glamorous movie star, a beloved novelist and a new mother shatter preconceived notions, revealing the complexities of trying to live life within other people's expectations.
"They're captives of their image. They're captives of their brands," said playwright Isabella Russell-Ides.
Russell-Ides is the playwright of "Jo & Louisa," WingSpan Theatre Company's contribution to the festival. The world premiere play imagines a conversation between Louisa May Alcott and her greatest creation, Jo March, from her wildly successful novel Little Women.
"Because Jo is Louisa May Alcott's alter-ego, this theatrical conceit – putting them together in the same room - gives me an opportunity to have Louisa's youth confront her about her domestication," Russell-Ides said.
The play peels away the layers of Alcott's character. "We learn about Louisa May Alcott not only from a historical point of view but then we get to see her drop the mask. And then we get to experience Jo in a whole new light," Susan Sargeant, the director of the show and theater's producing artistic director, said.
Alcott financially supported her family, claiming she wrote "moral pap for the young" because it paid well. Hospital Sketches, based on her gritty experience as a Civil War nurse, drew acclaim, but the optimistic Little Women became the brand she perpetuated.
"There were a lot of compromises that she made, but in this play, we have the opportunity to take some buttons off," Victoria Wright, who plays Louisa, said. "Jo really sums up everything that she wishes she would be. She was forced to conform to a certain Victorian life."
The version of Jo March confronting Louisa is an energetic 15-year-old, untested by life. She is not happy about her character's marriage to Professor Bhaer. "That was oppression to her. She was not happy about that. She was not doing it because she wanted that. She felt like she had to to be somewhat free or to write. She had to have a man attached to her," Bethany Burnside, who plays Jo, said. "This is a very unapologetic Jo and she knows she can be even more than she was. She's begging for freedom. And she knows Louisa can be more too."
Nicole Neely wrote "Marilyn, Pursued by a Bear" as companion piece to Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" for the American Shakespeare Center.
"I thought about the king spiraling into this horrible darkness and affecting everyone around him because something in him told him his wife was cheating on him," Neely said. "I saw a lot of Marilyn in that. She thought people hated her. She thought people were whispering about her all the time."
The play presented by Lily & Joan Theatre Company focuses on Marilyn Monroe's brief stay at Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic following the stressful filming of her last film, "The Misfits," and the end of her marriage to playwright, Arthur Miller. Monroe thought it was going to be a restorative retreat. Instead, she found herself in a padded cell and deprived of privacy. Neely depicts Monroe facing her greatest anxieties with the titular bear inspired by one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions representing her demons.
CC Weatherly, who plays Monroe, knew only of the actress' bombshell status and appreciates the play's deeper perspective of her humanity. "I think with fame we idolize people into godlike creatures, and we forget they aren't immortal, they faulter too. Marilyn Monroe was a person that felt immense pain, loneliness, love, heartbreak and she truly felt unworthy - you name it. She felt it too. The play helps us as a whole to truly see one another instead of overlooking one another," Weatherly said.
Lily and Joan Theatre Company selected the play to serve as a conversation starter about mental illness. "This show opens a door for those that feel misunderstood, or closeted in their mental illness, trauma or depression. One of the biggest takeaway messages from show is we all at times feel alone, but you are not alone," Weatherly said. "This production is the perfect opportunity for audience members to walk out of the theater doors and open up to their loved ones about what they are thinking about that haunts them."
Someone mentioned to Neely that everyone knows how Monroe's battle with mental illness ends. "But we're going to see her fight," Neely said.
"Marilyn, Pursued by a Bear" is paired four times with "small hours," Lucy Kirkwood and Ed Hime's intense play about a new mother struggling with post-partum depression. "She's not a famous individual, but she is famous architype: she's a mother," Barrett Nash, who plays the woman in "small hours," said.
Nash considers this role one of the hardest she has played. Produced by Leos Ensemble, the show unfolds in real time as this new mother tries to hide her emotional turmoil and distract herself as her baby cries in another room.
"There are certain specific things we as a society placed on women in that situation or certain expectations of who they are and how they're supposed to approach that that I know a lot of mothers feel like they don't live up to and the shame and guilt that comes along with that is huge and almost universal," Nash said.