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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Miss Marx

Or: You say you want a revolution.

There are no shackles like the ones that clamp around the heart. Links of iron can be broken, chains of traditional subjugation can be winnowed away, but no hammer or speech can stop you from loving someone, even if that someone is to be the death of you. This leaden truth lies at the bottom of Philip Dawkins’s parfet of a play illuminating the life of Miss Eleanor Marx, her crusades, her longings and the family she welded together in turbulent times.

A fire is burning in Victorian England. The Proletariat, charmed by the words of Karl Marx are beginning to stand up and demand freedom, equality, fraternity or death. But as Marx grows ill and bedridden it is up to his daughter Eleanor (Dana Black) to be the son he never had and further the movement. Eleanor has rather a lot on her plate: she travels round the country speaking at rallies, translates the works of her father and other foreign writers, and occasionally plays on the stage in such revolutionary works as Ibsen’s A Dollhouse. On top of that she must look after her best friend Freddy (Benjamin Sprunger) a flippant young dandy, his mother and Marx’s nurse Nym (Pamela Mae Davis), her far flung sister Laura (Justine C. Turner) and the avuncular Fredrick Engles (Matt Holzfeind). All this rushing about has left no time for love, or children, or a life of her own, which Eleanor thirsts for. Into this busy existance blusters fellow socialist Edward Aveling (John Ferrick) who, smitten by her mind, body, and politics proposes to make her his common-law wife. She accepts eagerly, but when their happy existence begins to fall apart she finds that her beloveds view of women’s rights are not quite up to socialist standards.

Dawkins text, and the voices he bids flow from his characters, appear to the mind’s ear like a latter-day Bernard Shaw. The construction is nearly identical: a highly visible, but rather amorphous, bedrock of moral opinion upon which is lifted soaring towers and sensible walls of human behavior, both folly and grace, which in turn are gilded all over 24K british drawing room humor. If you like to laugh you’ll like the play: the jokes run from light and puny (ex: “Sometimes I wish he had made Das Kaptial instead of writing it”) to low, vulgar and organ based (I’ll let you imagine those on your own). The scenes overlap and blend together, sloshing about in time and space, but sloshed with a kind of grace emphasized both by director Megan Shuchman and the live musical aires provided by Sarah Goeden. Dawkin’s real triumph, like Shaw’s, is not painting burning pictures of the repressed or even making a nice neat period drama. He shows us the gristly truth about familes: loves that spoil, hearts that break, and those who may not share your blood, but who you would shed blood for.

Shuchman’s cast rise like the workers of the world to meet the challenge, both with their full wit and their full heart. Black gives us a live wire Eleanor, full of joshes for Freddy, possessing an inspiring zeal when she looks into your eye from the soapbox, and able to use her mellifluous low voice to cram the many syllables of “bourgeoisie” into the verbal punch reserved for “scum”. That live wire thrashes about all the more when excited by carnal desire in Aveling’s company but approaches the still frantic but weightier death throws of a woman watching her world dissolve and all her dreams extinguished. Ferrick leads us down a merry path, showing Professor Higgens-ian man, all bounce and bluster, his exclamations humorous, his amorality charming. Until it isn’t, and we begin to see what sort of creature our Eleanor has twined her life to. Davis and Turner both give solid performances, the old housekeeper full of private worries and secrets, not above having a jest or two, and the young woman, swiftly reaching her wits end, watching her family fall apart. But of all of these first rate performances it is Sprunger who gives a truly delightful turn as young Freddy, dry as a good chianti in his delivery and smug as a puppy in his manner. His rise from callow youth to soul supporter of his life long friend is a triumph to see.

The feeling of watching Miss Marx, is not one of a grand sweeping epic or even that of a domestic tragedy (though you would not be faulted for labeling it as such). It feels instead like close family drama, visiting a favored aunt to find her in dire straights. It is familiar, and welcoming and all the more painful because of it.

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