Dinner Guests and Job Applicants

Dinner Guests and Job Applicants

Fascinating women gather in Fountainhead's "Top Girls."

<bt>"Top Girls" — a quirky, complex treatment of issues surrounding women's rights and roles — is being given an energetic revival by the Fountainhead Theatre company at Arlington's Theatre on the Run through Oct. 1.

The play is by British playwright Caryl Churchill who has a reputation for taking on big issues in her plays and treating them with strong theatrical effects. She is the author of "Cloud Nine," which dealt with colonialism as the British empire collapsed, and "Far Away," a confusing rumination on genocidal horrors including the holocaust.

When her plays first come out they seem to be on the cutting edge of the latest trends. Her 2002 play, "A Number," just opened at Washington's Studio Theatre, and it deals with the complex issues of human cloning that are just emerging as technology evolves.

"Top Girls," on the other hand, is a quarter of a century old, and its issues seem, if not dated, at least less revolutionary. In the early 1980s the conversation around the dinner table that opens the play must have seemed charged with a contemporary resonance in England, where Margaret Thatcher was the new Prime Minister.

Today, the glass ceiling is still very much a limiting factor for many women but it isn't exactly a new, unexplored issue. Today the issues may seem a bit more routine, but the approach remains intriguing.

That dinner table conversation which comprises the first act of this two-act presentation is the most interesting half of the evening because of the identities of the guests that have been invited by their hostess, the proprietress of an employment agency specializing in finding jobs for women.

Lynn Audrey Neal is a delight to watch in this role.

At her table are such fascinating women as the ninth century Englishwoman who, disguised as a man, became Pope according to a story alternately believed and denied by church historians. Callie Kimball brings her to life as a woman interesting in her own right but also fascinating because she ponders such questions as whether a Pope should have an abortion.

Charlotte Akin brings a certain impressive veneer to the character of Patient Griselda, who was a subject of the writings of Petrarch and Boccaccio.

ALSO BREAKING BREAD at the table are travel writer Isabella Lucy Bird, who published "An Englishwoman in America" just before our Civil War; Japanese courtesan Lady Nijo, who, after affairs with her Emperor, became a Buddhist monk (nicely played by Regina Aquino); and the Dutch girl portrayed in the 1560s painting "Mad Meg," whom Kate Michelsen brings to life.

Each of the actresses then switches over to a modern character for the second, much less interesting act, as employees in or applicants seeking the assistance of Neal's agency, which goes by the title "Top Girls." The juxtaposition of all the historical talk of the rights and roles of women and the modern details of employability, career development and salary considerations focuses attention on Churchill's views, but those views seem rather tame today.

Still, the production provides plenty of grist for post-theater discussions, and the physical production is quite satisfying in the small space of Arlington County's Theatre on the Run.

WHERE AND WHEN: "Top Girls" plays Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run, through Oct. 1. Tickets are $10-$20. Call 703-920-5923 or visit www.fountainheadtheatre.com.

Brad Hathaway has covered theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland, as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.