Sometimes the biggest lies are the ones we tell other people. Sometimes they’re the lies we tell ourselves. And occasionally, the two converge – as is the case in A Woman of the World, Rebecca Gilman’s trenchant, 75-minute solo play at 59E59 Theatre about Mabel Loomis Todd, a woman remembered today (if at all) as the posthumous editor of the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Gilman’s clever conceit is that towards the end of her life, the now 75-year-old Todd, who made a considerable living speaking to large groups, is now facing a small audience of hotel guests on Hog Island, Maine (which Todd largely owned). There, for the first time in nearly two decades, she is supposed to recite her crowd-pleasing oratory about “The Real Emily Dickinson.” But whether it’s the wind outside (as she claims), her advanced age, the presence of her (unseen) daughter Millicent or some other force of nature, Todd simply can’t seem to stick to the prepared script.
Still, for most of the time, even her off-the-cuff remarks follow what we suspect is her familiar modus operandi, embellishing her childhood, rewriting large chunks of her later personal history (especially when it comes to her relationship with Emily), aggrandizing her accomplishments. She’s like a building with a beautiful façade – but one where the brickwork slowly falls to the ground in pieces, ultimately revealing a far less striking, but surprisingly solid, foundation.
Even with Gilman’s considerable gift for prose, Todd could be an insufferable bore. Fortunately, the magnificent Kathleen Chalfant not only commands our attention – practically daring us not to listen – but she also charms us, makes us laugh (sometimes with her, occasionally at her), even periodically annoys us as she offers a summation of her life and philosophy. Most importantly, however, Chalfant ultimately makes Mabel utterly relatable as she comes to terms with the past, present and future.
Yes, Mabel Loomis Todd may indeed have been called by some “a woman of the world” – a sly dig at her liberal attitudes towards drinking, female attire and promiscuity – but here at least, she ultimately discovers just what those five words actually mean. It’s a sobering lesson, and one we can all take to heart.