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The Sugar Wife

Alexandra Kilpatrick | Friday, November 13, 2009

“Tea and coffee, such bitter little drinks …” This is one memorable line taken from Elizabeth Kuti’s “The Sugar Wife,” which is currently playing at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Decio Mainstage Theatre.

Kuti was born in England in 1969 but moved to Ireland in 1993 where she studied at Trinity College Dublin and wrote a doctoral thesis on 18th-century women playwrights. After she graduated, she worked in Dublin as an actress and playwright. Her literary accomplishments include the 1999 completion of Frances Sheridan’s 18th-century comedy “A Trip to Bath” (re-titled as “The Whisperers”) for the company Rough Magic, “Treehouses” published in 2000 and performed at the Peacock, Dublin.  In 2005, she published “The Sugar Wife,” for which she won the 2006 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an award for English-language women playwrights.

Set in Dublin’s Quaker culture in 1850, “The Sugar Wife” is a bittersweet examination of sexual politics and political morality. Margie Janiczek plays the lead role of Hannah, a well-to-do charitable Quaker woman who is often torn between her humanitarian work with the city’s poor and her successful husband Samuel, played by Bobby Hannum, and his business managing oriental teahouses. One of her many charitable efforts involves visiting the character of Martha, (portrayed by Ashley Fox), a pitiful, bitter and depressed sickly poor woman. Fox does a wonderful job of portraying her character in a way that shows all of her degrading qualities along with her sense of humor.

Hannah constantly struggles with her desperate need to help others in doing charitable work for the society’s poor and after finding that she is unable to help everyone she wants, she ironically drags down herself and the people surrounding her with her despair.  Samuel attempts to follow along with Hannah’s lofty ideals but it becomes more apparent throughout the course of the play that he tends to break away from Quaker customs.  Janiczek and Hannum fill their roles well and make it clear to the audience that although their characters get along well on the surface, there is no real love between them.

Things go further awry when they receive a visit from two new houseguests, a pretentious English philanthropist named Alfred (John Maltese) and a slave he bought and freed named Sarah (Stephanie Elise Newsome).  Hannah’s willingness to take them in is meant to be reflective of her abolitionist and philanthropic efforts.  Both characters are scarred by the horrors they’ve seen and experienced in America’s Deep South, and they relay these personal experiences to Hannah and Samuel. At this point, Hannah comes to realize the naïveté  of her efforts, as the wealth that supports her abolitionist efforts also come from tea and sugar, products of imperialism and globally dependent on the labor of enslaved Africans.  

Newsome and Maltese both deliver very convincing portrayals of their characters.  Newsome interjects the beautifully yet horrifically convincing scenes with breathtaking monologues from the viewpoint of Sarah, who tells of her horrific experiences in slavery. The stories she tells are enough to turn someone’s stomach, but Newsome tells them with a passion and clarity that draws the audience in to truly empathize with Sarah’s strong-willed character.  Maltese also does well at portraying the development of the relationship between the characters of Hannah and Alfred.

Overall, the play is well-acted and has excellent lighting and sound effects. The soundtrack to the play consists of a classical sounding Celtic mix with violins similar in sound to those in the closing scenes of “Titanic.” If 1850s Dublin Quaker society is your thing, this is definitely the play for you. Even if it’s not, Kuti makes the characters in “The Sugar Wife” very relatable to modern society.  

“The Sugar Wife” will be playing Friday and Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.