Swim against the tide

Posted: October 5th, 2018 | Arts & Entertainment, Featured, Theater Reviews | No Comments

By Jean Lowerison

Diversionary Theatre presents the San Diego premiere of “Bull in a China Shop” — which Kim Strassburger directs — through Oct. 14.

The bull in this case is butchy dyke Mary Woolley, applying for the presidency of women’s seminary Mt. Holyoke in 1899. Woolley has her sights on change — nay, revolution — in the education of women, and she doesn’t mince words.

Tamara McMillian plays the character of Jeannette Marks (Photo by Daren Scott)

“You want a training ground for good, pious wives? F*** that,” she says. “I’ll give you fully evolved human beings. So you’re afraid they won’t find husbands? So what? I say: if a man is interested in headless women, send him to France.”

She gets the job and settles in. Partner Jeannette Marks, a wannabe writer who will teach English at Mt. Holyoke, comes along, but they will not live together until work on the president’s house is completed. They immediately start to change women’s education — radically.

But charming firebrand Woolley (Jo Anne Glover) doesn’t count on the crushing forces of tradition in women’s education. This tradition is represented by Dean Welsh (Milena Sellers Phillips), who first sniffs about a report that Woolley has been seen climbing three flights of stairs each night to kiss Marks goodnight, and then complains that Marks skips office hours and “treats department meetings with disdain.”

(l to r) Jeannette Marks (Tamara McMillian) alongside Pearl (Andréa Agosto) (Photo by Daren Scott)

Based on letters between these two historical characters over a 40-year time period, “Bull in a China Shop” imagines some of the events in the lives of these pioneers in what playwright Bryna Turner calls the “queering of history,” which she defines as making room for people who have been denied a place in the narrative.

Change is afoot, on the smaller interpersonal level between Woolley and Marks as well as on the larger, societal stage of the movement toward women’s rights. Marks meets student Pearl (Andréa Agosto), who develops a big crush on her teacher. Later, Marks will move out of faculty housing to an off-campus location where she will room with philosophy professor Felicity (Maybelle Covington).

While these three continue to push revolutionary notions — and even get arrested for trying to vote — Woolley finds swimming against the educational establishment a difficult proposition.

Strassburger directs with a light touch, letting these fine actors draw a striking, though profanity-laced, picture of the beginnings of the women’s rights movement.

Glover’s Woolley, who knows how to play the academic game, is a fine foil for McMillian’s younger, more impetuous Marks. She makes work life more difficult for Phillips’ Dean Welsh, who has to deal with bothersome realities including the private funding that allows Mt. Holyoke to survive.

Covington’s Felicity provides a good stabilizing influence, roommate and fellow protester for Marks.

Agosto is adorable as Pearl, president of the secret society of fan-girls of the Marks-Woolley relationship, and a willing soldier in the revolution.

Ron Logan’s set suggests academia. Curtis Mueller’s lighting and TJ Fucella’s sound seem a tad more updated than the plot — taking place between 1899 and 1937 — would indicate, but they’re lovely, as are Beth Connelly’s costumes.

It’s tough to swim against the tide, but Turner makes the journey amusing as well as moving, daring and even a bit scary. The revolution isn’t over yet, but “Bull in a China Shop” offers an amusing, fast-paced, 80-minute glimpse into its beginnings.

—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at

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