Review: ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper’ at Central Works (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger
(****1/2)
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

From l to r: Elena Wright and Cybèle D’Ambrosio perform in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s THE YELLOW WALLPAPER. Photo Credit: Central Works.
From l to r: Elena Wright and Cybèle D’Ambrosio perform in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s THE YELLOW WALLPAPER. Photo Credit: Central Works.
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Turn of the 20th century feminist writer and activist is best remembered for only one work of fiction, the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It is a masterpiece. On one level, it is a superb example of the gothic horror genre, often compared favorably to the work of Edgar Allen Poe. But, more profundly, it is a scathing and moving indictment of the treatment of women in Victorian and Edwardian times.

Written in the first person, it purports to be the journal of a young wife and mother named Jane, whose well-meaning physician husband attempts to cure her of depression by removing her from all stimulation. He confines her to the attic nursery of a decaying Colonial mansion. At the start of the journal,  Jane is perfectly sane, and grateful for her husband’s care. Gradually, however, she begins to fear the room in which she is held. At first, it is just a mild distaste for the unpleasant yellow wallpaper. But gradually she becomes obsessed with its pattern, which she cannot quite make sense of. It begins to obsess her, and eventually she feels that it is haunted. She comes to believe there is a woman (later, multiple women) trapped behind the wallpaper, whom she must free. Increasingly obsessed, she is gradually reduced to madness, crawling about on the floor like the women of her fantasy, clawing at the wallpaper. The story, of course, has two levels: it is a straightforward horror story of a haunted house that drives a woman mad, while the haunted house is a metaphor for the maddening societal imprisonment and infantilization of women. It is a masterpiece because it works so well on both levels. Gilman wrote only one memorable work of fiction, but it is a work of genius.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” has long been recognized for its theatrical potential. As early as the 1930s, the great actress Agnes Morehead performed it as a radio play. In the years since, it has been adapted as a Twilight Zone episode, several films, and numerous stage presentations.

Central Works artistic director Gary Graves remarks in his program notes that the company “recognized the piece as a perfect fit for our space in the City Club.” Indeed it is! Not only is the gothic architecture perfectly suited as a setting, but the history of the buildng (a former Women’s Club, designed by pioneering woman architect Julia Morgan, a contemporary of Gilman’s) is rich with resonant associations. Jan Zvaifler’s staging and Gary Graves extraordinary light design make full use of this gift. The light uncannily creates the feeling of an attic room, both beautiful and frightening. Moving repeatedly from sunrise to sunset to moonlight, it marks the passage of time in almost musical fashion. And the play of light against the walls helps to create the ominous wallpaper. The echoing of a baby’s distant cries (kudos to sound designer Gregory Scharpen) and the occasional knocking of Jane’s husband/keeper add to the overall sense of horror and sorrow. And speaking of design elements, Tammy Berlin’s period costumes are picture perfect.

Elena Wright, as Jane, is driven mad by her confinement. Photo Credit: Central Works.
Elena Wright, as Jane, is driven mad by her confinement. Photo Credit: Central Works.

A brilliant innovation in this production is the addition of a non-speaking second character, violinist Cybèle D’Ambrosio. D’Ambrosio remains on stage for the entire evening, accompanying the monologue on the violin, invisible to Jane. Initially, the score incorporates snippets of romantic music, charming and sensible, but gradually begins to reflect and anticipate Jane’s growing madness, with rumblings and screeches, insect-like buzzes, and frightful tappings. It is musically excellent and virtuosic in performance. Just as impressive, however, is D’Ambrosio’s acting. Although she never speaks, her unnerving, compassionate, and riveted attention on Jane adds immeasurably to the evening’s effect. It is as if she is a sympathetic goddess, guardian angel, or perhaps Jane’s own compassionate soul, who can see the truth. It is an excellent performance, musically and dramatically.

Elena Wright is everything she needs to be as Jane. Vibrant and vivacious, she fully embodies the young wife who loves her husband, but is increasingly plagued by doubts as to the wisdom of her confinement. Her gradual descent into psychosis is convincing emotionally, vocally, and physically. The monologue is a full seventy minutes in length, with no intermission, and the actress does not flag for a moment. It flies by. As with D’Ambrosio’s performance on the violin, Wright’s work is best described as virtuosic.

Central Works’ production of “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper” plays at The Berkeley City Club through June 21. For further information, click here.
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“Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper” adapted for the stage by Gary Graves, produced by Central Works. Director: Jan Zvaifler. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Original Score & Arrangements: Cybèle D’Ambrosio. Lights: Gary Graves. 

Jane: Elena Wright. Musician: Cybèle D’Ambrosio.

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2 thoughts on “Review: ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper’ at Central Works (****1/2)

  1. Excellent review, but one small correction: This wasn’t Gillman’s only work of fiction. Just check her entry in Wikipedia and you’ll find short stories (186 in total!), novellas, book-length fiction, and poetry.

  2. You are correct! I misread my sources. I should have said that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the only work of fiction for which she is remembered, although she did have a long literary career writing not only fiction but poetry and, most significantly, essays and political commentary on the women’s movement of her day.

    In fact, I have corrected the review accordingly.

    Thank you for calling this to my attention.

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