Playwright Kate Hamill Brings
Women’s Voices to the Stage

Once upon a time, there was a lovely and fairly successful young stage actress named Kate Hamill. After earning her BFA in acting from Ithaca College and studying at Magnet Theater Improv and Circle in the Square Summer Theater Intensive, she found herself offered parts in independent films, and regional and New York plays. Anyone who can make a living, even a meager one, as an actress should feel proud of that accomplishment (just ask one of the thousands of aspiring thespians who work as waiters in Manhattan). But, alas, she was restless.

“I had been an actor for many years,” she told Backstage in 2016, “and was frustrated because oftentimes when you’re a woman, you’re competing with 400 other actresses to play someone’s wife . . .  girlfriend . . . prostitute.”

All that changed on a drive up to Vermont with roommate and fellow actor Andrus Nichols. Hamill, who is a lifelong fan of Jane Austen, said she wished there was a stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that she could star in. Nichols asked why she didn’t just write it herself. Hamill accepted the challenge, and — to ensure she’d follow through — bet $100 that she would do it. Not only did Hamill win the bet (“Which was good,” she remembers, “because I was poor”), but her play became a sensation.

Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility opened in 2014 and helped establish New York City’s avant-garde Bedlam Theatre Company (founded by Nichols and director Eric Tucker). Hamill herself played Marianne, the emotionally impetuous Dashwood sister. The play was revived in 2016 and ran for ten months off-Broadway. It was nominated for an award by the Drama League and received one from the Off-Broadway Alliance. The New York Times included it in its Top Ten Theater list, and The Huffington Post declared it to be “the greatest stage adaptation of this novel in history.”

In 2017, Sense and Sensibility moved to the prestigious A.R.T., American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was produced by eight other theaters across the country. When American Theatre magazine published its annual list of the most-performed playwrights, Hamill tied with the late, great Tennessee Williams for tenth place. (She’s now been on the list for three consecutive years.) 

Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility is fun and free-wheeling. The set, which is in constant motion, is actually on wheels, with actors (all of whom play multiple parts) quickly transforming the Dashwood cottage into a moving carriage, a windswept moor, or the elegant dining room of a London mansion. Hamill tells the story of Marianne and her more level-headed sister Eleanor faithfully, but adds all sorts of stage business that highlight and comment on Austen’s subtext. For example, the fact that the Dashwood girls are subject to the speculation of society is underscored by near-constant whispered gossip and spying through windows. The prescribed roles of men and women in Austen’s day become more pronounced — and silly — as men take on women’s roles and women men’s. The entire play is a romp, starting and ending with an elaborate period dance set to decidedly contemporary music.

Other Hamill adaptations soon followed, including Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and Mansfield Park. Her original works include Love Poem, In the Mines, and Prostitute Play. She’s currently working with A.R.T. on an adaptation of The Odyssey.

Another Hamill adaptation, of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, is currently playing in Cambridge, produced by the Underground Railway Theater. This award-winning company’s artistic director, Debra Wise (who plays several key roles in the play) welcomes local audiences with a bit of background about both the novel’s author and the playwright. “Thackeray subtitled his masterpiece ‘A Novel Without a Hero,’ and this resonated with playwright Kate Hamill,” Wise explains. “She told us she felt most stage and film adaptations of Vanity Fair make it the Beck Sharp story, but the novel is about both women — Amelia and Becky — each pursuing different paths and punished for both of them. Hamill says she allowed herself to go darker with Vanity Fair than either of her other most popular adaptations, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. She was in part inspired by overhearing a woman exclaim at a production of Hamlet, ‘Hamlet is so terrible to his mother!’ It is so easy to judge people, Hamill thought. How can we invite ourselves to be less likely to judge others without also judging ourselves?”

From the moment the lights go down, Vanity Fair is unmistakably a Hamill production. As in her earlier works, the line between onstage and off are blurred, with seven individual dressing rooms glimpsed behind doors and unfinished walls. These serve as informal set pieces (one door might open to Amelia’s home; another to a German tavern), but keep the entire cast in at least partial view throughout. We are constantly reminded that we are watching a piece of theater, even as Vanity Fair‘s characters play-act their way through society’s expectations. Wise, who plays the regal (and digestively challenged) Matilda Crawley and the rich and lecherous Lord Steyne, also serves as the “fair’s” Manager, engaging one-on-one with audience members and narrating the activity we see. In this role, she’s quick to point out that we all do what we have to do to survive, softening any prejudice we might have against recklessly ambitious Becky or her pitiable friend Amelia.

The cast is first-rate — and they need to be. Hamill and, in this production, director David R. Gammons, expect much from them. Josephine Moshiri Elwood and Malikah McHerrin-Cobb, as, respectively, Becky and Amelia, are the only actors who get to devote themselves to a single role. The other five, David Keohane, Paul Melendy, Stewart Evan Smith, Evan Turissini, and Wise, take on three or more, portraying men and women indiscriminately. At one point, when all of the actors are otherwise engaged, the part of Lady Crawley’s dame de compagnie Briggs is played by an upside-down mop with a fur stole.

As in other Hamill plays (I’ve seen Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility twice), Leslie Held’s costumes range from fairly detailed and accurate period ensembles to one or two accessories that convey the essence of a character. When Becky and Amelia leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies — Amelia to take her place as a lady and an heiress, Becky to visit Amelia for a brief holiday before assuming the role of governess (a future so foul that the entire company gags whenever someone says the word) — Becky has a sticker-covered guitar case and Amelia a set of pink luggage that would thrill a modern teenager. When the two women are pregnant, it’s conveyed by large round pillows (Becky’s happens to be a smiley emoji) tied over their dresses, not under.

Set pieces are similarly flexible. A period sofa rests at one end of the narrow stage area in front of the dressing room doors. But a formal dining table is represented by an ironing board with a kitsch electric candelabrum and ketchup and mustard bottles. The point, I suppose, is that Thackeray’s classic novel is being turned upside down and inside out. It’s not a precious relic that must be presented literally or not at all. It’s a morality play that can be held up to ridicule when appropriate, and interpreted and reinterpreted to suit modern sensibilities, a theatrical convention that Hamill has perfected.

Drifting from the author’s text, she gives both her heroines an opportunity to defend themselves. When Amelia agrees to give her son to his grandfather in exchange for a personal stipend as well as a more privileged upbringing for her boy, she turns directly to the audience and forbids people to judge her. Later in the play, the same convention allows Becky to break the fourth wall and justify her scandalous behavior. Both women, the “bad” Becky and the “good” Amelia, are doing what they must to survive. Hamill is pointing out how quick society is to label anyone who doesn’t stay, as her Manager explains, in the safe and “hypocritical middle.” Although this paradox affects everyone, Vanity Fair makes it clear that the victims are most often women.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Hamill explained her position as a female playwright this way. “I really felt like I wanted to create female-oriented classics for the stage. I’m not a director, so I didn’t want to direct some female Hamlet. What I wanted to do was create new works.” About her success she says, “It’s truly humbling because I feel like it’s symptomatic of how hungry people are for this, which was the same hunger that made me write it. It’s nice to know I’m not alone and that people just want these stories.”

And Hamill sees a connection between her work and current events. “The reason why it takes 40 women to take down a Harvey Weinstein is because we don’t value women’s stories as much as male stories. We can’t just keep telling the exact same stories over and over again. I’m someone who loves the classics, so I can watch Hamlet for the 99th time, but it can’t be the only story we’re ever telling.”

Underground Railway Theater’s Vanity Fair is at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge through February 23.
Other opportunities to see Hamill plays include her “feminist revenge fantasy,” Dracula, at New York’s Classic Stage Company through March 8; and The Scarlet Letter at Costa Mesa, California’s South Coast Rep, March 28-April 25.


Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.