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Unchartered Territory

CHOICE, a controversial new comedy by Winnie Holzman, directed by Sheryl Kaller. Oct. 16 – Nov. 15 2015 at the South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.Early in Winnie Holzman’s Choice, there is a fleeting reference to Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and father of Existentialism who posited, “An objective uncertainty held fast… is the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” That is, our truths are individual, subjective, and ultimately based on our ability to make free choices. Ms. Holzman, the writer who brought to life the ultimate ingesting teens, Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano of the cult hit television show “My So-Called Life,” as well as the young witches of Oz, Elphaba and Glinda in the musical Wicked, tackles the serious issue of existential choice in her characteristically sharp-eyed, humorous way. When Zippy, entering the third act of her life, begins reconsidering her life choices, it entails some personal and political dangers.

From the moment John Adams ignored his wife Abigail’s genteel request to “remember the ladies” at the Constitutional Convention, the question of women’s roles in our democracy has been a fraught one. The early 1800s gave rise to The Cult of True Womanhood, a movement that defined the perfect woman as pious, pure, submissive, and domestic, and her roles confined to mother, daughter, sister, and wife. This was promulgated by clergy and popular culture by way of women’s magazines and buttressed by “protective” labor laws that banned women from certain professions. Opposition to this during the era culminated in the Seneca Falls Convention during which early feminists advocated for abolition and the right to vote. Americans have been fighting with each other over women’s choices ever since. Zippy, the protagonist of Choice, is a member of the generation that broke down many of the last barriers to women fully participating in the political, economic, and cultural life of the country. Ms. Holzman has that in common with her protagonist and she notes that they were entering unchartered territory: “If you don’t see something modeled for you, you have to make it up as you go along. You need a huge burst of courage and imagination, or you may not be able to do it. Our generation of women, we didn’t really see having choices modeled. We were flying blind. When we took that on, we didn’t know what that would look like. … I have that line in the play where Erica says, ‘We looked at our mothers and we thought I can’t live that life.’ And that is true for a lot of us. But then how then am I going to live? It left a big question mark. That’s one of the things I am exploring a little bit. Any time society makes a big shift there are tremors and aftershocks. That’s inevitable. And there’s discomfort.”

We may have come a long way, baby, but a woman’s right to choose as an overall concept remains a contested space in women’s lives. A 2015 World Bank Study found that “90% of the countries surveyed had at least one law that discriminated against women.” The United States is included in that number. This has far-reaching economic and cultural consequences. When the act of making a personal choice is fraught with broader societal meaning, women feel extra pressure when trying to make choices for themselves. Even without formal, legal restraints, softer forms of pressure to conform to an ideal — be it a completely emancipated model or the submissive housewifemodel — can make having productive, enlightening, collegial, and entertaining conversation very difficult. There are just certain things we feel we cannot say, a situation that has launched a thousand think pieces and provided fertile ground for Choice. Even so, Ms. Holzman approached the project with some trepidation: “It’s hard to talk about these things because the truth is always a bit more complex. I don’t have any answers; I’m just interested in certain questions and those questions are not questions I can answer. Writing a play is about asking questions and wanting to talk about those questions out loud with a group.”

-LISA TIMMEL


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South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA: 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA 02116
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