'Bull in a China Shop' gives audiences a fast-paced 90 minutes


“Bull in a China Shop,” now playing at Benchmark Theatre in Lakewood, is ideally timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which assured women the right to vote. The regional premiere runs through June 29.

This play tells of the fearless Mary Wooley, who was president of Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, from 1900 to 1937, making waves as she progressed. She had earlier been the first female student at Brown University and is also remembered for a relationship with her longtime partner, Jeanette Marks, a professor of English at the women’s college. At a time when gay couples hid their relationships, this one caused a great deal of gossip and speculation.

The college, which had previously turned out pious wives, was now run by a firebrand who eliminated the “Domestic Services” Department and upset conservative donors as she focused on scholarship, instead of social graces.

Wooley also was recognized for her intelligence and spent time visiting China, as well as being involved with suffrage issues in the U.S. Playwright Turner found inspiration for her play when she discovered a series of letters in the college archives written by the two women.

Actor, director and teaching artist Kate Gleason directs this well-written play by Bryna Turner (Mt. Holyoke ’12), which features the skillful actor Gabriella Cavallero as Mary Wooley, with Lauren Bahlman as the spirited Jeanette Marks. Cindy Laudio-Hill portrays the ultra-proper Dean Welsh, who tries to keep a lid on the mercurial president by citing issues with donors who are objecting and threatening to discontinue their donations to the college. Tresha Farris is young gay student Pearl and Regina Fernandez plays cool (passive-aggressive) faculty member Felicity.

Spirited conversations among these women tell an audience not only what was happening in the room, but also what was happening in their world.

The set, designed by Tina Anderson, consists of heavy, full bookcases perfect for a college presidents’ lair—with the central one able to flip to a back side with cheerful cottage curtains, letting the audience know we were in faculty housing where Jeanette Marks had to live. (Eventually, a president’s house was built.) The floor of the set is overlaid with enlarged copies of the letters between the feisty pair.

Turner’s language is often from our present time and the story combines feminist history, queer history, comedy, romance and an ongoing strong relationship that made it worthwhile for both strong women to take chances.

Gleason has pulled the cast together into a smoothly operating crew that engages an audience in a fast-paced 90 minutes. It’s wonderful to have this relatively new theater company in town—be sure to get acquainted with it.


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