Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"Third" demonstrates Wasserstein's power to ignite, illuminate, challenge

Kate Witt and Marti Mukhalian in Third (photo Michael Brunk)

Through March 22

Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein died far too early (of cancer when she was 55 years old). Third was her last play, which played Off-Broadway in 2005, just before her death. It is now performing at ArtsWest with a tight cast of five, directed by actor/director Peggy Gannon.

Wasserstein focused resolutely, sometimes, on women’s issues and women’s voices, as she dissected and illuminated specific time periods and encompassed women’s rise to bang against the glass ceilings and find their voices. However, she did not neglect the classics, and in Third, her theme is King Lear.

Laurie Jameson (a vigorous, take-charge, and accomplished Marty Mukhalian) is at the peak of her career, having helped generate change and awareness of women’s issues and political power at a select, small Eastern university. She lectures on literature from a feminist perspective. As the play opens, Professor Jameson lectures the audience on King Lear.

A young man, Woodson Bull III (a convincing, earnest Mark Tyler Miller), presents a paper with his analysis of Lear. However, he is at the school as a wrestler, with dreams of becoming a sports agent. Given his name, legacy number (“the Third”), “jock” status, and white male privilege, Jameson profiles him and decides he doesn’t have the intellect or capacity to have written the analysis himself and accuses him of plagiarism.

The play can be looked at as a metaphor for Shakespeare’s King Lear, itself. Professor Jameson loses everything she worked for after mistaking Third’s honest opinion as stolen analysis, just as King Lear loses everything after rejecting his honest daughter’s expression of love.

 It can also be viewed as what happens when an outsider struggles so long and hard to become an insider that she forgets to be open to another’s viewpoint. So she becomes just exactly like those she supplanted in the first place, who judged her, as a woman, insufficiently intelligent or accomplished to be the professor she aspired to be at the beginning of her career.

Jameson’s portrayal is softened, enhanced, and explained by interactions with three key people: her daughter Emily (Kacey Shiflet), her dementia-increasing father Jack (Bill Higham), and her colleague Nancy (Kate Witt), who is battling cancer. Each of these strong performances and wonderful scene dialogues enlarge who Jameson can be, if she’d let herself, with Third. As we witness her compassion, her trials as a daughter, her difficulties as a mother of a grown child and a friend to a suffering colleague, we can see what she could offer Third as a mentor and teacher, and the tragic blinds she willfully keeps on her eyes.

This may sound like a tragedy, ala King Lear, but it’s far from that! It’s an absorbing, thoughtful play with loads of ideas and ways of examining what Wasserstein is saying. There are funny moments, wry moments, and especially heart-breaking moments where Mukhalian and Higham can move you to tears.

Gannon’s vision of Third is spare. Burton Yuen’s set design has a cloud-strewn backdrop and stately windows hung from the ceiling, implying the grandeur of the college. Costuming by Anastasia Armes is simple, yet effective. Lighting by Tristan Roberson is muted and subtle. Sound design and song choices root the play in 2003 (by Johanna Melamed). The simplicity sets of the complex clash of ideas nicely.

It’s a terrific opportunity to have a Wasserstein play on Seattle stage again. Third proves her power to ignite controversy, discussion, changing perspectives, and even an opportunity to see where feminism might have gone off the rails for some people.

For more information, go to or call 206-938-0339.