Writer: John Cassavetes
Director and Adaptor: Carissa Licciardello
Belvoir Upstairs Theatre
February 26 – March 27, 2022
While the John Cassavetes 1977 sleeper-hit portrays the triumph of an ageing alcoholic “actress” over the back-pedalling role assigned to her by society, Carissa Licciardello’s clever adaption prompts the audience to realise the extent to which current perception has rejected an age or gender limitation on women’s self-development.
Sarah (Toni Scanlon), a 60s-plus playwright, has written the role of Virginia in The Second Woman according to her own lived experience of ageing. Basically: Unlike men, women do not improve with age and, if wise, when middle-aged, will graciously accept a minor role in life – and if lucky on stage. Also, when they’re over 60, they will agree to become invisible altogether. A sad story but while Myrtle (Leeanna Walsman) – middle-aged actor and heavy drinker, cast as Virginia – needs the role, she is conflicted about performing the part of a once in-demand actor who has lost her sense of personal autonomy.
The play opens with a play within the play as Virginia – uninvited – visits Maurice (Anthony Harkin) a former lover. Her appearance at the door wearing an iconic raincoat and sporting very blonde hair is hackneyed as is the predictable moment when she flings it aside to reveal a skimpy, black sequinned dress which she had – yes, really – worn at the height of their passionate affair 16 years ago. Wanting to revive a past in which she was desired and valued, she is humiliated and slapped by the now married, successful, well-off Maurice.
As Myrtle, she rejects the idea of accepting humiliation on stage but, doubting herself, she mourns her younger self that would have been more fearless and more competitive in the face of the ambitions of her male co-star. That self is referenced in the 19-year-old Nancy (Caitlin Burley) who adores the star with a youthful passion and who Myrtle imagines she has killed by thrusting her accidentally into the path of car just as she, herself, is being crushed by denial of who she is.
Versions of herself haunt and distract her as the unlikable director, Manny (Luke Mullins), bullies her and the apparently omniscient Sara invalidates Myrtle’s insistence that she, unlike Virginia, has a sense of self and cannot get into the part the script prescribes. Her inability to learn text she doesn’t believe in – a text that is “hopeless” – is resolved on opening night when Myrtle takes charge to the delight of the Belvoir audience. They have always been on her side along with Myrtle’s young dresser Kelly (Jing-Yuan Chan) because they know that it is Manny and Sarah who are the dinosaurs.
There is always the risk when adapting a success from the past that the new version will be less impactful despite the high quality of the present cast. Licciardello’s play is not challenging misogyny – both the male and female versions – but having the audience realise the extent to which they reject it. The final and very dynamic uplift is what they expect.