We memorialize the trailblazers who fought for women’s suffrage in the United States and the United Kingdom. In their shadows are women who fought hundreds of smaller, unsung, and unsuccessful battles for equality. The fight for women’s right to equal education in the United Kingdom is one such war, and “Blue Stockings” by Jessica Swale details one such campaign. Fought in the Cambridge University senate and against the prejudices of male classmates and professors, the battle for Girton College students to receive degrees from Cambridge University currently is currently being played out at Silver Spring Stage.
Overall, Silver Spring Stage’s ‘Blue Stockings’ is a delightful glimpse into the past that leaves the audience both hopeful for the future and aware of the ways we still have to grow.
The world of Cambridge University is rigid in its expectations of the young women in the class of 1896. The high expectations of Girton College Mistress Elizabeth Welsh and low expectations of their male peers and professors frequently clash, leaving the girls banned from lectures and policed for their behavior. The play follows a class of four: Tess Moffat (Katherine Leiden), Celia Willbond (Julia Rae), Carolyn Addison (Alex Garcia Greenberg), and Maeve Sullivan (Lily Tender). While Tess is the protagonist, the girls work well as an ensemble, especially when rallying against the rigidity of their environment—an impromptu can-can dance party; helping Tess sneak out past curfew; and defending their friends against the many injustices they experience. Tender stands out as Sullivan. Her passion and resolve clash against the biggest barriers in the play, with heartbreaking results.
Swale’s strength as a playwright is bringing faces to history and finding moments of levity in a world where the women have to sit through lectures about blatantly sexist, but period-accurate, beliefs about women’s bodies. In a play full of classrooms and lecture halls, director Eleanore Tapscott uses the diamond layout of the stage to her advantage, creating a distinct feel for each classroom. The world she creates, supported by the spartan brick archways of Douglas Becker’s set design, evokes the fast-paced and freeing world of academia. Joshua Romney’s sound design uses the rigid tempo of classical piano music to underscore a world that adheres stringently to timetables and the veneer of middle-class Victorian respectability.
Girton College Mistress Elizabeth Welsh (Rebecca Grutz) struggles with respectability politics. Her insistence on maintaining a certain image betrays some of her staunchest allies. Maeve Sullivan is the brightest student at Girton and the only student of a lower class. Welsh forces her to leave after learning that her mother has died and there is no caretaker for her younger siblings. Her concern? That the children’s lives were at stake, and that the Cambridge senate might have found out that she allowed a student to stay at Girton and shirk her duties as caretaker. Similarly, Welsh forces Ms. Blake (Mariel Penberthy), a teacher and former Girton girl, to leave after her continued support of women’s suffrage and sharing that support with the students. The association with a “radical” idea like women’s suffrage would also displease the Cambridge senate. These exits from Girton add much-needed nuance to the play. Both Tender and Penberthy perform their roles with passion and depth, making their later absences all the more poignant and infuriating.
Welsh’s campaign, the play, and this production falter at the end. Swale’s climactic scene involves an angry mob of men breaking into Girton following the vote for degrees. The ensemble engages with the fight choreography (Stefan Sittig) with enthusiasm and mixed success. This mob’s violence is resolved abruptly. The girls recover within a few lines of dialogue despite their home being invaded, their effigy burned in the town square, and their dreams of receiving degrees crushed. Tapscott masterfully uses the girls’ rallying cry to energize the play through its optimistic ending. Overall, Silver Spring Stage’s “Blue Stockings” is a delightful glimpse into the past that leaves the audience both hopeful for the future and aware of the ways we still have to grow.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
“Blue Stockings” runs through November 12, 2023 at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD 20901. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to online.