- L to R: Heidi Tappan, Kim Swain, Avalon Kahn, Linda McGinniss
Carole Vasta Folley is a funny lady. And she makes other people funny. Just watch The Family of Ewe and see if you don’t LOL.
The Family of Ewe, hereafter to be known as TFOE, has nothing to do with sheep —although a cartoony ewe clad in leopard-print mini, red heels and lipstick appears in the marketing materials. It’s a new play written and directed by Folley for Burlington theater company Girls Nite Out. And, yep, it is funny. But it’s more than that; this is a play written by a woman for women (and one male with a tiny part), and so TFOE exhibits a full spectrum of the feminine and feminist: roller-coaster emotions, relationship dynamics, middle-aged-grrl-power solidarity, insecurity and empowerment. And as such it perfectly fits GNO’s mission to provide more roles for women — particularly those “of a certain age.”
The play centers on a group of gal pals who call themselves the Family of Ewe — and that last word stands for “enlightened women empowered.” Ewe is also “a play on words,” says Folley, “meaning you in both the singular and plural.” But despite a moniker that recalls 1970s consciousness-raising groups, this is an inclusive family of friends that gets together to gab, bitch, eat and drink, not analyze patriarchy. And — move over, Odd Couple — it is one motley crew; the characters are so different from each other, you wonder how they ever got together in the first place.
Three of the women — Kathy, Jane and Hannah — live together in the nicely appointed home that is the play’s set (credited to designer Ann Vivian and retailer Design Matters); a fourth roommate, Ann, has recently died, and the play begins with a post-funeral gathering. Toni, Patty and Jen round out the group. Then there are Ann’s two daughters, Sophie and Madeline, and “the other woman,” Margeaux. More on them in a moment.
Sassy humor is the dominant note in TFOE, and Folley is skilled at both writing snappy dialogue and pulling glib, rapid-fire delivery from her actors. Yet plausible drama anchors the story: a too-soon death underscores aging and mortality; a wife is dumped for a younger woman; daughters are abandoned; sisters are estranged; a teenager is pregnant. And then there is unwanted body fat and the caloric counsel of ice cream in the middle of the night.
Wisecracking, cynical Kathy is TFOE’s anchoring character. Played by Kim Swain, she is hilariously acerbic and sometimes caustic. Kathy is the one whose husband left for a younger woman, and she is filled with pain, rage and self-loathing. She is also overweight, and Swain plays her size like it is another, unwelcome character. “How did this happen?!” she exclaims at one point, miserably grabbing a hunk of her belly.
When Toni (Janet Stambolian) brings her new employee Margeaux (Rebecca Raskin) to a Family of Ewe gathering, all the women eventually piece together that Margeaux is the woman who had an affair with Kathy’s duplicitous ex … who has ditched Margeaux in turn. This storyline is a central theme in TFOE, and is the one Folley has most fully developed. Swain flings herself unfettered into the role of Kathy; she is convincing both as a woman scorned and as a stubborn, self-pitying pain in the ass. She uses humor as a shield.
Few of the other characters are given — or convey — such emotional complexity, but there is another dominant plot: the appearance of Ann’s two daughters. Each is damaged in her own way, and we gradually learn why. Uptight Sophie (Avalon Kann), who shows up to organize her mother’s funeral, is cold and wants nothing to do with the “ewes.” Younger sister Maddy (Perry Vasta) mysteriously arrives later dressed like a panhandling vagabond but, once she reveals her pregnancy, dons a floral dress and moves in with her “aunts.”
That ignites a minor subplot involving Jane (Linda McGinnis), whose attempt to mother Maddy is at first rudely rebuffed. Dark-haired and slender, McGinnis delivers a poised, ladylike Jane whose MO is genteel kindness, her suffering quietly eloquent.
Third roomie Hannah is spiritual, über-positive and frequently strikes yoga poses in the living room. A willowy blond, Heidi Tappan nails her role, but you can’t help wishing Hannah was allowed to punch through the new-agey fluff that muffles her.
The other characters are less fleshed out but are thoroughly engaging — because each actor clearly has fun with her role: Stambolian as lesbian Toni is warm, witty and the best-adjusted of the bunch (hey, she is a chiropractor) and is sweetly surprised to be the most successful in love. Kathy Seiler’s Jen is a sexpot in tight clothing; that is to say, a wife and mom to three kids who hides … disappointment? … behind bawdy behavior and Mae West-worthy innuendoes. And not least, Robin Owens is a riot as the ditzy Patty; her facial expressions and awkward body language are priceless.
The Family of Ewe is not without its flaws: You wish that more of the characters were allowed to penetrate their own surfaces. A faux speed-dating scene is gratuitous, even if it does generate laughs. The play is a bit too long, and yet the ending feels rushed. And there are unanswered questions, such as, Why does Patty always wear pastel?
Quibbles aside, TFOE is far more satisfying than not, and the women onstage are a bunch you’d like to know better — as their alter egos and in real life.
Folley, 52, is far from a newbie to the stage — though in earlier years growing up in Hyde Park she spent more time on it. She has directed previously for Lyric Theatre and for Girls Nite Out. And though she says she likes to work on “every aspect” of theater, Folley has arrived at the conclusion that this — creating original work for women — is what she wants to do now. “I love directing community theater,” she muses, “but I have more to say. I’m really clear that this is my mission now.”
"The Family of Ewe," written and directed by Carole Vasta Folley, produced by Girls Nite Out, Wednesday through Saturday, October 9 to 12, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, October 13, at 2 p.m., at Main Street Landing Black Box Theatre in Burlington. $22. girlsniteoutvt.com