Thirty years ago, I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in a sexual act of rape." Thus Gertrude Beasley introduces herself. She takes wry pleasure in the shock waves rippling through the audience. After all, she is a proper-looking woman, wearing a black dress with a discreet, ivory-colored collar. The rest of her introduction is even more shocking. She claims she wishes she had brought destruction on that woman, and she bitterly characterizes her father as "monstrously cruel."
She's got our attention. In the person of Veronica Russell, she holds us fascinated for the next 90 minutes, very few of which are bathed in the soft glow of nostalgia for the dirt-poor life of a West Texas family in the final years of the 19th century.
Russell not only performs A Different Woman, she also wrote the script, drawing extensively from Gertrude's memoir, My First Thirty Years. Before she could write it, of course, she had to do some research. Unfortunately, laying her hands on a copy of My First Thirty Years was not an easy task. The book was published in France, banned in England, seized by the American Customs Service and confiscated by the Texas Rangers. In no time, it just about disappeared from the face of the earth.
"I'm going to tell you stories that will curl your hair," Gertrude warns. That's no idle threat. Although her memories tend to be bitter, there is an undertone of ambivalence toward her mother, father and 13 siblings. Yes, 13. Imagine a family that size hauling around in a horse-drawn wagon while the shiftless dad looks for work. Add screaming fights between the spouses, separations and, finally, a divorce.
Then there are the older brothers, who hold the 5-year-old Gertrude down and try to have their way with her sexually. That is when they're not getting it on with the cows in the barn.
We seem to be in the peak season of gallow's humor, particularly with the Martin McDonagh plays that feature death, violence and torture. Edgy is in fashion, but who would want to step into a chamber of horrors like A Different Woman for a night's entertainment? Well, I, for one, enjoyed it. Odd as it sounds, this one-woman show is not depressing.
For one thing, not all the humor is of the Satanic variety. At one point, reflecting on her childhood, she says: "All this makes me wonder if I have been rendered ineligible for marital bliss." She relates a brief courtship that had the obligatory quota of hand-holding and even an attempted kiss, followed by a proposal which she laughingly rejected -- and, perhaps, regrets rejecting.
One of the many good reviews from New York, where Russell performed the play at the International Fringe Theater Festival, said the play is not depressing because of Gertrude's indomitable spirit. I agree. This gal is no goody-two-shoes. She is a survivor. She is feisty -- "full of beans," as they say. Also, she's clear-sighted. When she impersonates her mother throwing one of those anti-daddy rants, we can see that Gertrude gets it. Being able to see, perhaps resent, but ultimately understand and even accept the very flawed individuals who comprise her family is part of what saves her. The other part of what saves her is that she reads, studies, excels and escapes to school, including graduate school in Chicago. Finally, at the age of 16, she gets a job as a teacher -- albeit a teacher with a gun placed on her desk to control the hooligans she's charged with educating.
Gertrude sets out in the beginning to tell her own story, but by the end of the play, we feel that she has also tried to tell her mother's story and her father's -- that she has almost tried to reconcile them and to comfort them. As she relives her childhood, she emerges with something approaching peace. If not peace, at least a less corrosive degree of anger.
Under Perry Martin's direction, Russell holds us spellbound with very little besides the force of Gertrude's personality. She sits and talks to us and gets more animated during some parts of the narration. She doesn't overdo the reliving of past incidents, but the past does seem to get the better of her from time to time, so we come away with a concrete sense of who the other people were.
A Different Woman is local original theater at its best. It deserves to be a hit.
- Veronica Russell's solo show dramatizes the life of Gertrude Beasley.