Back in 1982, when Caryl Churchill's Top Girls first roiled British and American theatre, the work was, as the Brits say, spot-on. Its overlapping dialogue, its fierce view of strong women as victims of patriarchal societies, and its vociferous attack on the idea of a "free" economy enslaving all but a few exemplified the decade. If the '80s was a pastiche of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, then Top Girls was a harbinger of things to come.
In the play, Churchill goes back in time, introducing us to Joan, the "first" female pope, eventually stoned to death. The playwright also gives us a fierce, booze-gulping female Viking, a simpering but power-hungry geisha, and other women who fought as individuals throughout history and suffered for it. Their host is a woman named Marlene, a 1980s fast-track Londoner who cannot escape her past no matter how hard she tries.
The adventuresome Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre has revived the play with a quickstep production that is mostly very good, catching both the tenor of the '80s and the predictive virtues of these "top girls." In this much more somber post-Sept. 11 era, the play still glistens and digs deep.
Some things, however -- like the play's attack upon Margaret Thatcher -- seem dated. But Churchill's depiction of the Thatcheresque superwoman who, in imitation of men, cares little for those she tramples on her way to the top is still arguably valid. The "second" sex, she argues, ought to pull together and help each other out rather than simply follow the guys in their scramble for power. Such out-of-the-box thinking, along with Top Girls' Pinter-like (and Mamet-like, for that matter) dialogue, made it one of the best plays of the second half of the 20th century.
At the Gamm, Wendy Overly has directed a spirited production, one that perhaps emphasizes the comedy (as Top Girls is very funny) more than the tragedy but still lets Churchill's salient themes shine. The reliable Jeanine Kane is possibly too sensitive as Marlene, a woman who rises to high management at an employment agency; she is just short of bitchy enough as the my-way-or-the-highway businesswoman, but quite fine in scenes in which she must confront the fact that she abandoned her daughter. As the kid and as the geisha, Casey Seymour Kim gives a bravura, scene-stealing performance, at times hilarious, sad, sweet, and sour. Rae Mancini is stellar as Marlene's long-suffering (but more decently human) sister. In other roles, Jillian Blevins, Tray Gearing, Karen Carpenter, and sprightly Nehassaiu deGannes make this revival fly.
One wishes director Overly had not staged so much of the play downstage right, but overall, Top Girls is a grand slam.
Top Girls runs March 23-April 23 at the Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket, R.I. Tickets: (401) 723-4266. Website: www.gammtheatre.org.