American Conservatory Theater’s “Top Girls” features (top row, from left) Monique Hafen Adams, Lily Harris, Michelle Beck, Julia McNeal, Summer Brown, Monica Lin and Rosie Hallett; and, kneeling, from left, Gabriella Momah and Nafeesa Monroe. (Courtesy Robert Sokol, BAYSTAGES)

ACT’s ‘Top Girls’ leads local Caryl Churchill revival

Production offers new take on 1982 award-winner

The Bay Area is on the cusp of an unofficial Churchill festival. No, not Winston, but Caryl Churchill, the prolific and groundbreaking playwright whose work spans from “Downstairs” (1958) to the quartet of “Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.” opening this month at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Locally, upcoming highlights from her canon include “Escaped Alone” (2016) in April at the Magic Theatre, “Vinegar Tom” (1976) in December at Shotgun Players, “Cloud 9” (1979) in November at Custom Made Theatre Co. and American Conservatory Theater’s “Top Girls,” now in previews and opening Sept. 25.

The 1982 show, which earned Churchill an Obie Award for playwriting and is about a meeting of historical figures, family and feminism, was the subject of an animated roundtable conversation with the ACT cast.

Rosie Hallett (playing Pope Joan and Win): “Reading literary analyses of the play, I was so shocked to see how many people described the women in the restaurant scene as self-absorbed. These women get to be heroes in their own lives and that seems like self-absorption? That’s the privilege we have given men all the time.”

Michelle Beck (playing Marlene): “Yeah. In a moment where we are investigating the gender spectrum, we are also questioning, ‘What does it mean to be female or feminine? To be masculine?’ What’s also really interesting in her work, something that was really innovative at the time, is the overlapping dialogue.”

Monica Lin (playing Lady Nijo and Jeanine): “Tamilla [Woodard, director] told us to ladder the conversations. That it’s not only what someone else says that sparks an idea that you want to bring up, but there’s also a different energy to it that builds on the energy that was there before.”

Julia McNeal (playing Isabella Bird and Louise): “She also noted that the male gaze is not in the room, so there isn’t this constant calibration, which does happen. ‘Am I saying something attractively?’ or ‘Am I smart enough?’ There’s a freedom of just being our full selves. Permission to be grandiose. Permission to be, like, ugly.”

Summer Brown (playing Dull Gret and Nell): “When I knew ACT was doing ‘Top Girls,’ I definitely did not expect for the family to look the way they did, even after I was cast. I don’t know if people know how powerful that is for people of color to see onstage.”

Gabriella Momah (playing Angie): “I had never seen a production where Angie, Joyce and Marlene were people of color. I had always imagined them as white. I’m really excited for audiences who are familiar with ‘Top Girls’ to have everything they know about it be subverted.”

Monique Hafen Adams (playing Patient Griselda and Mrs. Kidd): “Diving in, I thought of this as a political play about feminism, but’s its really about family, too. There’s this Arthur Miller sort of ‘Death of a Salesman’ element to it that really hits you.”

Lily Harris (playing Kit and Shona): “People remember the dinner scene, but nobody really remembers the rest of the play and most of it involves two sisters, with lots of disagreements, who just really can’t get past their political differences.”

Nafeesa Monroe (playing Joyce and the Waitress): “Yeah, there’s something about political polarization that was happening during Thatcher’s time that is so… relevant. That it’s impossible to separate the personal from the political because the political feels incredibly personal right now.”

IF YOU GO

Top Girls

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, www.act-sf.org

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