Written by Doris Baizley, Mrs. California is a tongue-in-cheek, low key comedy, set in 1955, during the finals of a contest that will determine the best homemaker. You’d expect any play with this premise to be drenched in irony, and certainly Mrs. California fits that description, but there’s much more. There’s not a lot of the broad humor (like catty behavior, nasty sabotage or leering judges) that was part and parcel of say, Michael Ritchie’s cynical 1970’s film, Smile. You wince when you see the four finalists (Mrs. Modesto, Mrs. San Bernadino, Mrs. San Francisco, Mrs. Los Angeles) competing in categories like : setting a table, cooking a meal, sewing a garment, because it’s degrading to think anyone’s value is tied to a skill, but in comparison to other pageants, it doesn’t seem so bad. At least they’re not being evaluated on sex appeal. They are, however, being graded according to a paradigm created by men. That is to say, they’re being rewarded for their ability to play geisha. There’s a great poster that says (in essence) Nice women rarely make history. The truth of that adage illustrates the sad wisdom of the very smart, deeply moving, Mrs. California.
Mrs. California is the story of Dot, a married lady from Los Angeles who was entered in the contest by her best friend, Babs. She’s so ambivalent she has trouble admitting she wants to win, because its unseemly for ladies to compete. She is tugged and pulled between Dudley (the sponsor’s coach) and Babs, who both seem more invested in the outcome. As much as anything, the central conflict of Mrs. California is the crisis between Dot and Babs. They love each other dearly, but Babs is the “kind of woman” who puts men off. She’s loud, aggressive, openly flirtatious, and not afraid to let men know when they’re incompetent. Babs is not about to pander to the male ego, or let Dot lose, if there’s anything she can do to stop it. The problem is, living in the male-dominated world of 1955, she’s unwittingly hurting Dot’s chances.
Mrs. California revolves on the traditional structure of conflicting needs. Dudley wants Dot to win, because he’s attracted to her. When he tells Dot to send Babs away, because she’s alienating the judges, he’s not necessarily wrong. But you can’t help wondering why he (or any man) would have trouble with a woman who refuses the yoke of obsequiousness. While we are nudged to consider if Babs gets a vicarious rush from seeing Dot succeed, we must also ponder the chances that Babs (every bit as skilled at cultivating a hearth) has of winning such a competition. It’s pretty clear that Dot and Babs have a fulfilling relationship. Deep appreciation and comfort in sharing one another’s company. They’re not just friends of proximity, they care for and complement each other. Baizley asks us, “What sort of validation demands we abandon our friends? “Are women truly cherished for who they are?” You’d think in the 21st Century these questions could be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Sadly, an election year is perfect timing for a thoughtful, resonant, nuanced show like Mrs. California. Robin Armstrong has once again demonstrated her sublime, impressive mastery of memorable, poignant theatre.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents Doris Baizley’s, Mrs. California, playing September14th – October 7th, 2012. 5601 Sears Street Dallas, TX 75206 214.828.0094. www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.org