“The Old Woman Who Lost Her Voice” is not a story that Jill Bess could have told 20 years ago, or even five. In part that was because she was too busy juggling parenthood, work, theater and writing.
She hadn’t yet reached her limit. Everything that happened before and during her busy life was bubbling beneath the surface, but could not be expressed.
Hearing at age 18, that while education was great she might be married with a baby soon. Enduring sexual harassment, without a #MeToo movement to let her know she wasn’t alone. Being date-raped by a guy who, she later heard, wondered why in the world she’d stopped returning his calls.
Wanting to be an at-home parent, but struggling with society’s ideas of a “good” mother. Yearning to develop further as an artist, yet stymied by the unspoken societal rule that, as a mother, she needed to put everyone else’s needs before her own.
So she bit it all back, gritted her teeth and soldiered on. Until the tight-jaw thing became a metaphor for everything she couldn’t say.
Two years ago Bess developed “trismus,” a painful contraction and inflammation of the jaw muscles. For about four months she couldn’t speak normally and could barely eat. During an acupuncture treatment, she quipped bitterly that trismus might actually be “the world telling me to shut up.”
The acupuncturist replied, “Or maybe you feel like no one’s listening to you.”
Bess started crying, and began to heal. When a playwriting exercise suggested writing a fairy tale, the story “just flowed.”
The old woman in her play, Galena, develops agonizing jaw pain after a lifetime of being silenced by authority figures, co-workers, supervisors, and even her husband and children.
“And sometimes she’s silenced by herself,” Bess says. “She silences herself to keep the peace, to keep the family together.”
This is not 1970s feminist agitprop by any means. There’s no “women good, men bad” theme; in fact, the script specifically states that the male roles be played as “anything but caricatures.” This is fourth-wave feminism, whose aim is inclusion and whose point is that it isn’t just girls and women who are harmed by the patriarchy.
In fact, Bess (who also directs) shows that sometimes it’s other women doing the silencing: a hard-driving female boss who’s twice as ruthless as any corporate bro, and a mothers group whose members criticize Galena’s personal decisions and deride her dream of writing children’s stories.
Some elements of the play reflect the author’s personal experiences. For example, eight years of at-home parenthood were fulfilling but also isolating. Bess turned the experience into a one-woman show called “The Mommy Dance.” Her years of therapy spawned another piece called “This Stranger, My Friend,” and the above-mentioned date rape was the impetus for a play called “No More!” Bess has written other plays read and/or produced at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference.
While artistic director for Anchorage Community Theatre, she created the “Broadway Kids” program for young actors. Bess has also acted in local productions and appeared in “The Frozen Ground,” a film based on the Anchorage serial killer Robert Hansen. Since 2007 she has run the theater program at East High School.
Dick Reichman of RKP Productions is always on the lookout for new work for Alaskans. He calls this “The Old Woman Who Lost Her Voice” “a chronicle of society’s treatment of women in her generation.
“All the things that happened to her to cause her to lose her voice, her identity, her self-worth,” Reichman says.
Even people who love Galena are agents of that loss. Her father won’t (or can’t) comfort her during a period of great trauma and later shoots down her dream to go to college and become a writer.
Her daughter is angry when Galena has to get a job during a rough financial period. Too young to understand that her mother has no choice, the child lashes out in the cruelest possible way.
Galena’s husband, at first kind and understanding, slowly slips into less-enlightened ways of being. At one point, impatient with Galena’s emotional pain, he asks if she couldn’t just “write this into a book or something.” Jacqueline Hoffman, who plays the older version of Galena, calls it one of the most gut-wrenching lines in the play.
“This emotion you’re expressing right now… can you put it somewhere that I don’t have to deal with it? It’s so hurtful,” says Hoffman, who at 35 was surprised to be cast as an elder.
While she hasn’t yet experienced everything Galena has, the actor says it’s still obvious that we live “in a man’s world.” However, she believes social media and grassroots movements like #MeToo are making inroads.
“We have way more platforms than we did before. We’re getting louder…More people are paying attention,” Hoffman says.
The play provides no answers, according to its author. “I want to make it possible for us to have a discussion,” Bess says.
“It’s not a story about men vs. women. If I had to sum it up, it would be ‘the value of listening to one another.'”
THE OLD WOMAN WHO LOST HER VOICE, a modern fairy tale, continues through July 7 at Cyrano’s, 3800 DeBarr Road. Jointly presented by Cyrano’s and RKP Productions, the play contains adult situations and is recommended for ages 12 and older; children under age 10 will not be admitted. Tickets are $25 with a $2 discount for seniors and students and military with ID, available at CenterTix. (263-2787)