The Dignity Circle
“Hi, y’all. I’m Angela. I work in real estate. I live in Westlake, Sacramento, California.
… I have a question for you. What would you do if right now I handed you forty thousand dollars? In cash. No strings attached?” Maybe “a trip, a new car, a new guest bathroom, a new forehead?” Or how about just “a way to get out?”
And like a person casting a fishing line into a stream brimming with the day’s potential catch, Angela patiently, methodically, and ever cheerfully with much natural charisma builds a case why the gathered group of women – all like her “of a certain age” – should never again “cow” to the men in their lives and never be uncomfortable again asking for what they want. With a voice full of compassionate persuasion, she assures them that with a small fortune like forty thousand, “It’s your time; it’s your turn.”
In her world premiere play, The Dignity Circle, Lauren Smerkanich explores the vulnerability of suburban women whose lives are often subjected to the whims, abuses, and limitations of the male-dominated world around them and who are looking – even if they do not yet know it – for a way to take more control of their own destinies. Empowerment of women, by women, is the attractive promise, with the payoff – or in Angela’s word, with the “gift” – of $40K as a just reward for seizing the opportunity offered by other women just like themselves. Central Works presents an entertaining and yet troubling The Dignity Circle as its seventy-first world premiere in its thirty-third season where the boundaries between helpful and harmful, caring and controlling, good and bad exist are blurred to the point that even when seen clearly, can still be overlooked.
The local supermarket becomes the perfect recruiting ground to find women who are just waiting for someone to ask them a question who will really listen, empathize, and offer a suggestion – even for something as mundane as what dessert to take to a husband’s partner’s house. That’s all the opening Angela needs when she runs into a former, house-buying client, Judith, at the local Greenleaf Market. Sierra Marcks is so understanding and sincere that it is easy to understand how her Angela quickly gets a rather timid, clearly frustrated Judith to take her advice how to make a bought blueberry crumble appear homemade – especially when she offers to Judith a gift basket from her car’s trunk to make it look special. A quick hug of thanks from Judith in near-tears (clearly worried that that dessert must be perfect) is all Angela needs to invite Judith to a party – one that is like “a charity event,” a “women’s empowerment thing,” with “free snacks and booze.”
In Central Works’ intimate setting where the play’s action occurs in the small, rectangular space bordered on three sides by us as audience, we like Judith soon become under the alluring spell of Angela’s magnetic personality. Angela looks at us eye-to-eye with big smiles, walking back and forth, sometimes sitting right next to one of us and talking directly as if we are also at the empowerment event as potential ladies-in-waiting in what Angela explains is “our Dignity Circle.” All we must do is make an initial gift – our “First Devotion” – to the woman who invited us here. When we do, that person becomes a “Duchess;” and as soon as we bring in other possible ladies-in-waiting, we can gain that title on our way to becoming crowned one day “Queen” and receiving our accumulated gifts, probably totally forty thousand dollars. And we can do this over and again. Chin-Ching!
When Angela asks us (and also a now clearly interested Judith), “Do you see how easy it is?”, we want to believe her. After all, she promises, “You simply devote your way inwards to the center of the circle.”
But these meetings are much more than pulling out phones and “devoting” funds from bank accounts to this “non-profit” gift center. Sierra Marks’ Angela is often like a Werner Erhard, the 1970’s leader of large, ‘est group awareness’ sessions. She spills forth stock-phrase assurances of the power of women celebrating women, of how important finally to find a safe space to exchange personal stories with each other as well exchanging our “devotions” of funds. After all, she assures us, “We all deserve to be celebrated, we all deserve abundance, we all deserve dignity.”
Sierra Marcks is uncanny in her ability to create an Angela who it is so easy to believe that she truly believes all she is saying and why she is doing what she is doing. Angela wants to help us, to empower us because she cares. In this audience, we are for ninety minutes just like Judith –female, ladies-in-waiting and potentially future queens with newly acquired cash in our pockets. That is the power of both the script and of the direction by Gary Graves. We are sucked into this scheme just as is Judith because we see and we believe the change it has on her.
Rebecca Pingree’s Judith, is clearly fragile, someone who has low self-esteem but someone who also is so ready to find the kind of listening ear and outpouring of empathy that Angela offers. She shakily admits to Angela, “I don’t feel safe when I’m anywhere;” and her eyes communicate the hope she feels when Angela immediately replies, “We can make it so you don’t ever feel that way again.” Through Angela, we watch a total transformation of Judith – a visible strengthening of self-confidence, an assertion of ideas, and an ability to offer help and advice to other women finding themselves in troubling situations. Judith becomes proof that there is dignity to be found in this circle of women who come each week to offer “devotions” to each other.
But of course the story is much more complex for each of these women, and the goodness of Angela and her pyramid scheme is at best questionable. Is she naïve in believing the goodness in what she has created? Or is she a devil in disguise? What is the harm of women like Judith making positive changes in their lives, to take control of situations like she has with her husband, Scott (Adam Roy) who is one moment like a loving, caring puppy dog and the next, like a Jekyll turned Hyde? And what about Angela’s desires for her workaholic, insurance-selling husband, Parker (Dov Hassan)? Is it so bad she is pressuring him to let go of his business and retire early, letting her support him? Or is there something else going on?
Lauren Smerkanich pulls us into this complicated web of personal and relationship circumstances where who is bad and who is good is at one moment clear and at the next, a bit fuzzy. What is going on with Katie C (Heather Kellogg Bauman), another member of the Dignity Circle, who explodes in her anger about her male-dominated work situation but also lashes out freely at other Dignity Circle members and refuses to play by Angela’s rules? And what about Heather (Kimberly Ridgeway), a devoted mother and financially strapped teacher who is invited into the Circle by Judith but who is reluctant to open up in the Circle and clearly brings skepticism along with her hope of finding a way to save the life of her critically ill daughter?
Once on this course of more and more “devotions” offered by women hoping to take better control of the lives handed them, there is an outcome quite inevitable and unavoidable; but the ah-ha for us as audience is an awareness just how schemes like this do occur, how easy to be sucked in, and how cloudy the intentions can be. Powerful acting, astute direction, and effective lighting (Gary Graves) combine to hold our attention and interest for a script that is intriguing but somewhat predictable. But as is generally true at Central Works, the thrill of seeing another world premiere in such an intimate setting is genuine and is time well spent for an evening of live theatre.
Rating: 4 E
The Dignity Circle continues through July 23, 2023 in a world-premiere production by Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at https://centralworks.org/ or by calling 510558-1381.
Please note: Masks are required by all patrons within the theater.
Photo Credit: Robbie Sweeny