The James Girl | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The James Girl 

A riot of metaphors obscures the complicated story of Henry and William's little sister

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"I am working away as hard as I can to get dead as soon as possible," wrote 41-year-old Alice James, younger sister of Henry and William James. Since her early 20s she'd been a career invalid, plagued by recurrent fainting spells, leg paralyses, nervous collapses, and "mortuary inclinations." While her brothers rose to fame, she learned to "clothe [herself] in neutral tints, walk by still waters & possess [her] soul in silence." Like many 19th-century women, Alice couldn't envision a career for herself, and though her literary efforts were as witty, eloquent, and penetrating as her brothers', they were confined to letters and diaries. Incapacity and death became her life's work. When she was finally diagnosed with fatal breast cancer in 1891 at age 42, she wrote in her diary, "To him who waits, all things come!" By age 43, her work was done.

A century later Susan Sontag wrote in a production note for her 1991 play Alice in Bed, loosely based on Alice James's life, about the "all-too-common reality of a woman who does not know what to do with her genius, her originality, her aggressiveness." But making Alice the poster child for oppressed womanhood erases the complications that made her life much more than a feminist cautionary tale. Alice wasn't the only feeble James child; one of her younger brothers died at 38 from heart disease and another suffered from anxiety and alcoholism. Crippling nervous conditions plagued her older brothers and father. When her mother--the only hearty James--died in 1882, Alice sprang to life and became a kind of replacement wife, then returned to her slow death march when her father died shortly afterward. Perhaps a gargantuan Electra complex did her in.

The James patriarch, Henry Sr., believed that devoting oneself to a particular career was inherently limiting. As Henry Jr. wrote, "What we were to do instead was just to be, something unconnected with specific doing." Yet only Alice successfully avoided "doing"--except for getting herself dead. Yet she saw her work as vital. When William, then a Harvard professor, described her as "stifling in a quagmire of disgust, pain and impotence," she shot back, "I consider myself one of the most potent creations of my time."

Sontag sweeps aside these psychosocial and familial issues to create what she calls a play "about the grief and anger of women." Alice in Bed is a loose assemblage of imagistic scenes in which Alice first confronts her paternalistic father and cheerfully useless brother Henry, hoping for some acknowledgment of her death wish. Then she plunges into a mad tea party with, among others, Emily Dickinson and Margaret Fuller. Making art from Alice's life, Sontag turns a complicated reality into a simultaneously simple and muddy parable about female disempowerment, burying her subject under clunky metaphors. The script indicates that Alice should first appear under a stack of ten thin mattresses--the idea for the play came to Sontag when she saw a similar stack in the entrance to a swanky Italian villa. But why mattresses? Why not oversize books or unpublished manuscripts, which would have greater resonance? Then, according to the stage directions, two men in sailor suits take away the mattresses and Alice's nurse starts playing passages from Parsifal on the piano.

Throughout the play Sontag seems to be throwing metaphors at the stage in the hope something will stick, concocting all sorts of curiosities: she says the set should show Alice's room from ever-changing angles, a brick is mistaken for a book, Alice appears on a huge swing. Rather than let a consistent, meaningful vocabulary of images evolve, Sontag simply displays her efforts to be interesting. This approach reaches its deadening apex in the seemingly endless tea party: a half hour's worth of elliptical dialogue eventually reveals only that 19th-century women suffered in seclusion (like Dickinson) or suffered for their "mannish" sense of personal agency (Fuller). The final two scenes--Alice takes an imaginary trip to Rome, then confronts a real burglar in her bedroom--feel like the beginnings of new plays.

Director Dado wisely strips away nearly all of Sontag's metaphorical clutter (Ivo van Hove did something similar in his 2000 New York staging, suspending Alice from wires and confining the other characters to video). This Trap Door production has no mattresses, sailors, piano-playing nurses, oversize swings, or shape-shifting rooms. Instead Dado turns Alice's sickroom into a kind of carnival. Alice's nurse towers over her on stilts (concealed by her dress). Alice's brother emerges from a magical wardrobe in a tailcoat. Her father, an inexplicable creature, spends almost the entire first scene motionless atop a ladder, his back to the audience, his head lost in shadow.

Dado provides a visually consistent interpretation, at least for the first half of the show, and breathes theatrical life into the script. She and her 11-person cast (which includes a live cellist and a mostly silent preadolescent Alice) give the evening a sense of surreal whimsy even as Nicole Wiesner makes Alice's depression and anguish disturbingly clear. Engaged, multilevel performances underscore the characters' passions yet preserve a deep sense of mystery. In the best scene, Doug Vickers as Henry Jr. tries to coax his "maliciously amusing brilliant little sister" back to life, hoping she'll stop making him feel "wretched" as the witness to her infirmity.

But somewhere in the middle of the tea party scene Dado starts burdening the show with her own metaphorical overabundance: Alice watches herself on video, the guests dance in unison, Alice is wrapped in bandages. By the time 90 minutes have passed, the production has become nearly as opaque as the script. Ultimately Dado's admirable experiment falls prey to the very weaknesses she's tried to circumvent--perhaps an unavoidable failure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Rothenberg.

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