In the stunning first scene of “Top Girls,” British playwright Caryl Churchill’s four-scene, two-act play from 1982, Marlene (Michelle Beck), striding about in a bold red jumpsuit, is hosting a dinner party at a restaurant to celebrate a recent promotion at the employment agency where she works, and where she’s aiming to crash through the proverbial glass ceiling.
Her guests are figures from the past, and it’s worthwhile to mention them all, because each one is so distinctly drawn and so beautifully embodied by the actors in director Tamilla Woodard’s excellent revival at American Conservatory Theater: Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), who may have disguised herself as a man in ninth-century Italy; from 13th-century Japan, Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), draped in traditional voluminous robes (dazzling costumes by Sarita Fellows); a fierce, helmeted Dull Gret (Summer Brown), with no table manners at all, featured in a 1563 Bruegel painting; physically challenged but intrepid 19th-century British explorer Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal); meek and self-effacing Patient Griselda from “Canterbury Tales” (Monique Hafen Adams).
Each woman has a story to tell about the struggle she had, in her lifetime, to find her way in the world of men, and the stories are fascinating at first, eventually appalling. At one point, surrounded by her friends, Marlene crows, “We’ve all come a long way!” but later on she cries, “Why are we all so miserable?”
The scene is funny, rich, deeply moving as it clips along, full of rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, a rambling monologue by Pope Joan delivered in Latin, simultaneous chatter. Don’t expect to catch every word, but you might wish it would never end.
We discover Marlene’s story later on, in 1980s Thatcherite England, where the women from the first scene play new roles, and where we meet Marlene’s resentful sister (Nafeesa Monroe) and her teenage daughter (Gabriella Momah) as well as the daughter’s younger friend (Lily D. Harris).
On the one hand, Marlene’s struggle to forge a career, an identity, a future for herself, seems mild compared to the struggles of those women who came before her.
But in the hands of Churchill, famously a left-wing feminist, it’s not that simple. Marlene’s a complicated character.
This is a thought-provoking, hilarious and ultimately devastating look at how women continue to navigate the patriarchy, for better and for worse, and in the hands of Woodard and this excellent, multicultural cast, it’s an auspicious opening to ACT’s season.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 13
Tickets: $15 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org