At the Flea, a Reflection on Women's Liberation, Yesterday and Today

From left: Madeline Wise (Carol), Caitlin Morris ( Laura) and Courtney G. Williams (Stacy). Photo: Ilyce Meckler

Nov. 27, 2017

The changes that happen as we grow up are at the center of “Tania in the Getaway Van,” a current production at The Flea by Tribeca playwright Susan Bernfeld. In this, the first of a “pop-up” season of three plays from a writers’ group called The Pool, a mother and daughter live through the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, and then reflect on their freedom 40 years later.

With elegant writing and a superb cast, The Pool’s season is off to a promising start.

About that title. It refers to Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress who was kidnapped in 1974 and who adopted Tania as her pseudonym when she helped her captors rob banks. The story dominated the news and it forms the backdrop of the first act of the play. But the title may also refer to how a mother and daughter, Diane and Laura, eventually get away from their conventional Californian suburb.

Laura, played by the very versatile Caitlin Morris, is an awkward 11-year-old, obsessed with Patty Hearst. She wishes her own life were as dramatic. Her mother, portrayed with verve by Annie McNamara, barely registers her daughter’s odd fixation as she has discovered the women’s liberation movement. She decides to go back to school with the goal of getting a job.  

Laura spends her days glued to television watching endless re-runs. Nostalgic clips of 1970’s shows. They play on the back of the set, designed by David Bengali, before the curtain goes up and between scenes. Laura is vaguely aware of her mother’s transformation but doesn’t grasp its significance. “What’s a radical feminist?” she asks. “No one you know,” is the reply.

Laura’s babysitter, played by Madeline Wise, on the other hand, is inspired by Diane and follows her example. Intermittently, we are given insights into the time and place and into the characters’ thinking through captions projected above the stage. These are sometimes helpful but the inconsistent nature of their content at times made them more of a hindrance. In a more charming device, characters also break into song from time to time to reflect upon their hopes and fears.

Fast-forward 40 years for the second act. Two women sit at an outdoor café. As they begin to speak we recognize Diane, now a successful congresswoman on the brink of retirement and Laura who has blossomed from lumpen tween to an acerbic, analytical professor of economics.

We are now on the East Coast, and Tribeca audience members may suspect the location is inspired by some local restaurants, the terrace of The Odeon perhaps, or Sarabeth’s. The two women snarkily observe an endless parade of yummy mommies with doublewide strollers—another possible reference to this neighborhood where writer Susan Bernfeld has lived for 21 years.

Caitlin Morris’s transformation to the older Laura is superb. We see hints of her younger self but we also recognize that her mother’s earlier “liberation” has had a profound impact on Laura. Diane reminisces that she was the first one of her group of women friends who went to work while Laura says that she never considered not working. They are joined by Diane’s young colleague, excellently played with sharp superficiality by Courtney G.Williams. She is clueless about the struggles of previous generations of women but quickly devises a marketing plan for Laura’s academic writing. “This is your revolution on multiple platforms,” she glibly concludes.

While the scene adeptly covers the evolution of both women, Portia Krieger’s direction keeps them sedentary nearly all the time, creating a rather static impression. Nevertheless, when both women reach some realizations about themselves, the play delivers a moving vignette of how women’s lives and opportunities have changed while acknowledging that much remains to be done.

The two other plays in The Pool’s season are “Rafa, about the tennis player Rafael Nadal, by Peter Gil-Sheridan, and Lynn Rosen’s “Washed Up on the Potomac,” in which a group of colleagues are haunted by memories of a co-worker whose body is found on the banks of the Potomac River. The Pool membership will change after this season and three new writers will take over. With any luck, they’ll bring their plays to The Flea, too.

Tania in the Getaway Van by Susan Bernfeld is in rep at the Flea, 20 Thomas St., through Dec. 16. The play is directed by Portia Krieger; cast members are Annie McNamara, Caitlin Morris, Courtney Williams and Madeline Wise. Tickets here.