To get the metaphor out of the way: the bull is singularly determined revolutionary activist Mary Woolley, and the china shop is the former Holyoke Seminary for Women in the early 20th century. But from the opening moment of Bryna Turner’s Bull in A China Shop, it’s clear that Woolley’s revolutions – academic, social and personal – are not merely grounded in historical context. The recording of a solemn chorale is shattered by strafing contemporary rock, and indeed a riot grrl soundscape recurs throughout this San Diego premiere of Turner’s play at Diversionary Theatre.
The anachronistic music is but a part of Bull in a China Shop’s nod to universal relevancy. Its five female characters speak in anything but hushed Victorian tones, and though they are costumed for the early 1900s, they are not emotionally bound by their tight collars and long skirts. Woolley (Jo Ann Glover) was a Wellesley academic who became president of Mount Holyoke and for more than 30 years reshaped it in her intensely feminist mindset. Jeannette Marks (Tamara McMillian) followed her to Mount Holyoke, where she taught English and eventually became department chair. She was also Woolley’s lover.
Written primarily in short, confrontational scenes, the play depicts a Woolley embattled on two fronts: the perpetual fight for the liberation of women both in academia and beyond; and the one to convince her lover that her idealism has not been traded for power or individual recognition. But the drama in Bull in a China Shop resides not so much in Woolley’s and Marks’ stalwart commitment, but in their enduring relationship. It’s tenderly conveyed by Glover in the more strident, humorless role, and by McMillian as Marks, a character drawn with more complexity. In this staging directed by Kim Strassburger the most resonant scenes are one with Woolley on a trip in China, likening her loving connection to Marks to a pair of devoted swans, and a blazing, funny solo turn by Andrea Agosto as a scorned, lovesick student of Marks’.
At only 85 minutes, Bull in a China Shop is soon over, and though a sometimes-choppy affair, it leaves the audience wanting more time with two remarkable women whose influence is surely felt today.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/3/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat