This past summer, Anne Torsiglieri spent a long night driving through the winding roads of New Hampshire. “I was listening to a Christian radio station,” she recalled. “A husband and wife were talking about how wonderful it was that the wife had given up her egocentric desire to be equal. She had accepted that her role was to be subservient to her husband. They talked about how much more harmonious their marriage was now.”
The veteran actress and teacher found the vacuous dialogue valuable in two ways: It generated enough anger to keep her safely awake, and it confirmed her belief that now is a good time to revive Top Girls. Torsiglieri will direct Theater UCSB’s production of Caryl Churchill’s feminist classic beginning Friday night at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater.
The British playwright, arguably the greatest dramatist working in the nonlinear Beckett-Pinter tradition, wrote Top Girls in 1982, while Margaret Thatcher was serving as the first female British prime minister. It tells the story of a driven professional woman and the sacrifices she makes for her career.
“The play asks, what do we have to do to survive in a man’s world, and at what cost?” Torsiglieri said. “Do you have to give up pieces of yourself, including your ability to be a compassionate person? We are still in the thick of working all that out, socially, politically and individually.”
Torsiglieri first encountered the play around 1985, when she performed in a Princeton University production as an undergraduate. She recalls it as a genuinely life-changing experience.
“I had led a very sheltered life!” she said. “My mind was filled with old-fashioned sexual stereotypes. I had a lot of untested ideas about marriage and the role of successful women in the world. This play challenged them in a wonderful way.”
She went on to a successful career in the theater, which included, in 2008, a starry Broadway production of Top Girls, featuring Marisa Tomei, Martha Plimpton, and Mary Beth Hurt. “I understudied two of the cast members,” she recalled, “but the true professionals they are, they made it to (virtually) every show! I only went on once.”
The experience deepened her admiration for the play, which has an admittedly odd structure. The first act is surreal: The central character, Marlene, celebrates her promotion at a dinner party featuring strong women from history and fiction, including a character from the Canterbury Tales. The remainder of the play, which focuses in large part on Marlene’s relationships with her family, is in a more conventional style.
While some critics consider this inconsistency a flaw, “I think it’s delightful,” Torsiglieri said. “Churchill said in an interview in 1987 that she had been struck by ‘the maleness of the traditional structure of plays, with conflict and the building to a climax.’ I think she likes to consciously break the idea of what is ‘theatrical’ and plays with our ideas of form.”
If it’s disconcerting, Torsiglieri hopes it’s disconcerting in a good way — like listening to a woman on the radio contentedly discard any desire to think for herself.
Top Girls plays on November 8-9 and 12-16 at UCSB. Call (805) 893-3022 or visit www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu.