One good reason to stage Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece from the Reagan/Thatcher era, is to discover how little the rhetoric has changed 30 years after the supposed Conservative Revolution. The government-suspect, anti-labor, greed-is-good, do-for-yourself arguments in Girls’ third act can be found in nearly identical form on Fox News today. Equally enduring is our cultural ambivalence toward the female executive, esteemed as the apotheosis of women’s lib on the one hand, and stereotyped on the other as the ruthless shrew who seems to have purged all nurture from her nature.
Top Girls explores this tension within and between a dozen or so female characters, but none more than Marlene (Marley Frank), an executive within a women’s employment agency. Churchill’s unusual structuring of the work includes a fantasy first act where Marlene, on the verge of promotion, shares a table with strong, persecuted women from history in what begins as a celebration but devolves into frightening disclosures as layer upon layer of pain is penetrated by drink. Marlene’s torn heart simmers throughout the rest of the play, boiling over with a terrible revelation in the final act. The brilliance of this production and the solid performances by seven undergraduate women owe much to the sure direction of Anne Torsiglieri, who knows Top Girls well, having performed the show on Broadway. An impressive variety of convincing dialects adds to the color. Portrayals of strong-headed girls by Dani Hernandez, Mariah Goolsby, and Zurian Zarate underscore the knotty question: At what age and under what form do even women value strength in women?