Diana may be toiling as a sales clerk in Edwardian London. And she may wear long skirts and ruffled blouses to work, rather than a uniform of polyester pants and logo-monogrammed top.
But the fiery protagonist in the play “Diana of Dobson’s” has much in common with today’s protesting fast food workers, who are currently pressing their corporate masters for a more livable hourly wage.
In Taproot Theatre’s well-turned and vigorous revival of Cecily Hamilton’s 1908 rom-com with bite, Diana is just as fed up with her substandard salary and the inequities of an economy ruled by corporate fat cats, as her heirs to labor discontent are a century later.
And she isn’t quiet about it either. In Helen Harvester’s blazing portrayal of a woman too clever and outspoken to accept her lot, Diana doesn’t meekly go with the program, like the fellow department-store drudges who share her drab “live-in” dorm quarters.
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In fact, even when she receives a windfall that allows her to taste the high life for a bit, Diana’s sharp tongue and sense of injustice will not be mollified.
Though Hamilton’s entertaining yet pointed riff on inequality caused an instant sensation in its hit London debut, let us remember it did not come out of nowhere.
Hamilton, an experienced actress as well as a writer, was an activist and co-founder of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. She was part of a dynamic feminist movement that produced a wave of popular plays advocating the vote for women, and decrying the inequities of England’s brutally class-bound economic system.
Like her contemporary and fellow feminist George Bernard Shaw, she “gilded the bitter pill” (as one early reviewer put it) by delivering her polemic with satirical verve in the popular light comedy genre of the day.
The play pivots on the Cinderella device of having Diana conveniently receive an unexpected inheritance. It allows her to enjoy one madcap, extravagant sojourn in an elegant Swiss resort, during which she is courted by two suitors who wrongly assume she’s a wealthy widow rather than a mere shopgirl.
Sir Jabez Grinley (stoutly played by Jeff Berryman, with a thick Scots brogue) is the kind of self-made mogul (familiar then, and now) who has little sympathy for workers who don’t bootstrap it to riches the way he managed to. (Grinley’s chain of stores also happens to include the one Diana has just been toiling in.)
Another marital prospect is Victor Bretherton (Ian Bond), a young fellow with a cushy military post, a lack of ambition and a penchant for spending beyond his means. Fretting about his future, Victor’s high-society aunt Mrs. Cantelupe (the very amusing Llysa Holland) tries to manipulate a match between him and the presumably well-heeled Diana.
While Diana’s debates with Grinley are bracing, the conventional romantic aspect of the play and Karen Lund’s otherwise lively staging is enervating. Victor is a less ironic version of Eliza Doolittle’s dimwitted suitor Freddy in Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and there isn’t a tingle of sexual chemistry detectable between Harvester’s zestfully nervy Diana and Bond’s pallid fop.
However, Hamilton accomplishes something more in a rushed Act 2 than the happy ending her audience probably expected. Through Victor’s (brief) experience of the grinding poverty and homelessness of London’s lower class, her West End audience might better empathize with the poor too — and latch on to the play’s contention that a decent living needn’t be an opulent one.
Taproot is expert in summoning up the look of this period, and once again the settings by Mark Lund and costumes by Sarah Burch Gordon add welcome splashes of style.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org