- Courtesy Of Vermont Stage
- From left: Matthew Anthony, Stacia Richard and Chloë Fidler
One of the worst moments in a friendship has to be when one friend feels compelled to tell another that she's falling for the wrong guy. While this über-uncomfortable exchange might be a supreme act of looking out for a bestie, many relationships undoubtedly have not survived it. In the real world, this dynamic is not unique to any gender.
In playwright Wendy MacLeod's comedy Women in Jeopardy!, the friends happen to be women — two who can't let a third figure out her mistake for herself. After all, she might be dating a serial killer.
Vermont Stage's current run of Women in Jeopardy! makes use of the verdant lawns and open skies at Williston's Isham Family Farm to mount a production as vibrant as its plein air venue. The play revolves around the friendship of three middle-aged, middle-class white women, all divorced. There's Mary, played by Chloe Fidler; Jo, played by Abby Paige; and Liz, played by Laura Wolfsen. The three buoy one another in their drift through the eddies of a single "older" woman's life. They palliate loneliness, empty nests and bodily decline with charity fun runs, book club and a weekly ritual they call "Chardonnay Tuesday."
Bleakness can't break their friendly bond. This is not Waiting for Godot staged in a Whole Foods. It's more like "Sex and the City" relocated to a Salt Lake City cul-de-sac. Pain sometimes flickers with the clink of wine glasses, but the women's dedication to one another holds desperation at bay. Under the keen direction of Arianna Soloway, Women in Jeopardy! is part meditation on the vagaries of maturing womanhood — yes, menopause gets a nod — and part testament to the tenacity of female friendship.
That closeness faces a formidable foe when Liz brings her new beau, a dentist named Jackson (played by Quinn Rol), to an evening get-together with her pals. Liz's new relationship disrupts the symmetrical singleness of the group. But the real problem is Jackson's conspicuous connection to the recent disappearance of a young woman in their community, a dental hygienist in Jackson's employ, whom Jackson was the last person to see alive. This was right after he loaned her his DVD of the abduction-themed movie The Silence of the Lambs.
When Liz arrives at Mary's house ahead of Jackson in the opening scene, she's as bubbly as a glass of Champagne — and inebriated by romance, her judgment badly impaired. When she discloses that Jackson is planning to take her 19-year-old daughter, Amanda, on a camping trip — without her — Mary and Jo realize that straight talk won't sober Liz up. They decide to unleash their inner Nancy Drews and act.
What begins as a breezy comedy takes a turn toward madcap murder mystery. The darker theme here is a mere flirtation, though, as the Vermont Stage cast animates MacLeod's clever, chatty script with unflagging comic verve. The comic tone can be uneven in spots — sometimes subtle, sometimes overly broad — but the energy is always up, leaving laughs like bread crumbs on the trail to catch a killer.
As Mary, Fidler plays the brains of the investigation. A librarian by occupation, she hatches a plan to foil Jackson's devious design, assuming he has one. The willowy Fidler blows across the stage in a self-generated squall of mildly manic nerdiness, her gestures showing the intellectual challenge of outsmarting a twisted villain. MacLeod's sometimes arch cultural observations come across credibly and comically through Fidler's asides.
Playing Mary's partner in noncrime, Jo, Paige inhabits a more embittered character. "Women don't kill strangers. They kill husbands," she says as the group ponders potential criminal suspects. Jo's sharp commentary crackles with humor thanks to Paige's deft physical embodiment of her jaded character, a publicist by trade. The eye rolls and grimaces speak volumes.
As Liz, Wolfsen rises to the challenge of playing a capable woman and mother rendered clueless by romantic infatuation. MacLeod apportions more laugh lines to Liz's peers, but Wolfsen brings dimensionality to a character that could lapse into flatness, shifting skillfully between lovestruck and livid at her friends' interference in her intimate affairs.
These three principal characters conjure an emotional and physical energy that's greater than the sum of its parts, like friendship itself. Their convincing chemistry is amusing for the way conflict has rendered it volatile.
Rol's Jackson, the male interloper in this estrogen-heavy ecosystem, could not be a more awkward presence. His arrival brings an array of tone-deaf comments about the community's recent tragedy punctuated by cringey public displays of affection for Liz. At one point, he hits both sour notes at once, moving in for a kiss while imitating one of Hannibal Lecter's signature lines from The Silence of the Lambs.
Rol plays a second role in Women in Jeopardy!: Sergeant Kirk Sponsüllar, the police officer whom Mary and Jo enlist in their caper. Rol distinguishes the characters well, switching from edgy to earnest with a simple change of clothes. Whereas Jackson is oily and odd, Sponsüllar is as square as Dudley Do-Right. Rol wrings comedy from his cop's by-the-book bearing when sparks kick up between him and Mary and he lets his guard down.
Youth brings contrast to Women in Jeopardy! Playing Amanda, Stacia Richard is believable as Liz's daughter. She's no more worried than Liz about the camping trip, or about Jackson, reserving most of her angst for a recent breakup with a guy named Trenner. MacLeod has furnished Amanda with a few arrows to sling at her elders, though, when their plot entangles with her romantic prospects. Richard's brattiness blooms into precocious bitchiness in a scene that shows her disgust at the aging female body — and shows Richard's firm grasp of the dramatic material.
Playing Trenner, Matthew Anthony embodies a marginally more mature character who is nonetheless a credible companion to Amanda. Trenner's strongest moments come when he follows a lead that he misinterprets as sexual from Mary. This may be one of the funniest relationships in the play. Beyond its hilarity, the interaction gives Anthony a chance to take a familiar persona, the Ski Shop Dude, and complicate his stereotypical dumbness with glimpses of deeper humanity — wounds, actually, that make his hopeless attraction to Mary seem authentically motivated.
Jeff Modereger's set design is creative and efficient. The pastoral Isham Family Farm locale frames a tidy stage notable for its minimal adornment and easy modularity. A kitchen setting becomes a police precinct with the tug of a shade and shove of a wheeled table. This allows for scene changes as fluid and brisk as MacLeod's dialogue. Modereger's ingenuity is well established in local theater. Here he has eschewed dazzling spectacle for a design that, because it's inviting yet unobtrusive, calls the right kind of attention to itself.
At the risk of sharing a spoiler, the play's culminating scene departs the domestic arena for the great outdoors, where the comic trail goes a little cold. As the characters reach a campsite to unload their suspicions and fears, like the bountiful granola bars in Mary's backpack, taut story lines loosen into broader comedy. MacLeod's spirited dialogue becomes breathless.
The ultimate resolution to the play's overlapping story lines is a bit anticlimactic; it just doesn't match the intensity of our anticipation. In this, MacLeod has done a small theatrical injustice to what is right about Women in Jeopardy! and to what the Vermont Stage cast demonstrates so well: that in the wilderness of womanhood — or the literal wilderness — friendship can be essential to survival.