Not so retiring ladies

TACT's production of 1940 melodrama 'Ladies in Retirement' is about the kind of obsessive love that destroys the very thing it seeks to save.

Ladies in Retirement 521 (photo credit: courtesty)
Ladies in Retirement 521
(photo credit: courtesty)
Do you like murder mysteries? If you do, you are in luck. The venerable Tel Aviv Community Theater (or TACT, as it is fondly known) is gearing up for an early summer production of Reginald Denham and Edward Percy’s Ladies in Retirement.
First staged on Broadway in 1940, made into a movie a year later and restaged in occasional revivals down to the present day, this spooky melodrama is based on an actual murder in 1886 England and set in that period and place. The play is directed by Helen Eleasari, TACT’s new chairperson and guiding spirit.
Eleasari is well known in local journalism circles as Helen Kaye, retired arts and entertainment editor of The Jerusalem Post. “I have always kept my journalist persona and my theatrical persona apart,” she says. “I am Helen Eleasari when I have anything to do with the theater, movies, acting, directing – which I have been doing with TACT since I joined in 1984. I’m Helen Kaye when I write, whether it’s for The Jerusalem Post, short stories or a play.”
She is indisputably Helen Eleasari, however, as she begins to describe the play. “Ladies in Retirement is a thriller, but it’s an unusual kind of thriller because we know ‘whodunit’ by the end of the first act. We know by the end of Act One who the murderer is. The suspense and the tension of the play come from the questions of who will find out and what they’re going to do with what they have discovered. And this play is about surfaces, it’s about exposure, it’s about vulnerability. And it’s about the kind of obsessive love that destroys the very thing it seeks to save.”
The story takes place in a country house that belongs to Leonora Fiske, a retired music hall actress or, as Eleasari describes her, “a former chorus girl who has come up in the world.” Fiske lives in the rambling old house with Ellen, her full-time caregiver/companion.
Life is quiet and well ordered until Ellen’s two insane sisters are turned out of their London boarding house. Fearing that her sisters will be taken to the local madhouse, Ellen pleads with her employer to allow them to live in her house. From that point on, life at the old house becomes, shall we say, exciting.
Eleasari says, “The play has something to say about the status of women in Victorian society. In these – what should we call them? – post-women’s lib days, young women grow up taking for granted that they have as much right to good jobs, good incomes, independent lifestyles, any kind of career that they choose. But in Victorian England, this was not the case. Married women were basically chattel of their husbands. If they had an income, it belonged to their husbands. If they divorced their husband, he automatically got custody of the children. It wasn’t until the late 1880s, in fact a year after the action in this play, that the Married Women’s Property Act was passed, giving women control over their own income and assets. And that was married women,” she says.
“Single women – it was the duty of women to get married – were shunted aside,” she continues. “They either lived at home or at the sufferance of some male relative. If they were well off, that was fine.
If they were from the lower classes, they could do anything in domestic service. But if they were of the gentry, no matter how minor, the only professions open to them were governess or teacher or housekeeper/companion. That’s what Ellen does. In Victorian times, there was certainly no safety net. Women like Ellen’s two sisters – who are not mentally retarded but basically children who have never grown up – unless they are taken care of at home, their only alternatives at that time were either an insane asylum or the workhouse. So the play addresses this as much as anything else. It is a play that I find more fascinating the deeper I go into it.”
TACT was formed more than 50 years ago by a group of English-speaking immigrants. In the beginning, they did little more than read plays aloud in each other’s homes. Later on, they slowly graduated from play reading to play production and became known as the ZOA House Drama Circle. The group became a full-fledged nonprofit organization some 20 years ago, assuming its present name and coming officially under the auspices of the Tel Aviv Municipality. TACT currently stages a diverse array of theatrical productions year-round – all produced by non-professional actors, musicians, directors and stage crew.
The cast of this summer’s production of Ladies in Retirement have varying types and degrees of experience in amateur theater.
As an eerie murder mystery with occasional comedic moments, Ladies in Retirement has been delighting stage and film audiences for more than 70 years. And despite all that it shows us about the inequities of life in Victorian England, Eleasari says that the primary purpose of the play is to entertain. “It shows things as they were but does not imply criticism. When the play was written, there was no such thing as feminism, and I haven’t given it a feminist cast. That would warp the fabric of the play.”
After all is said and done, Ladies in Retirement is a good, spine-tingling piece of entertainment, given new life at TACT by a talented cast and crew.
TACT’s production of Ladies in Retirement is at the Shein Auditorium, Beit Yad Labanim, 63 Rehov Pinkas, Tel Aviv. June 21, 22, 23, 26 at 8:30 p.m; June 25 at 9 p.m. For reservations, call (03) 604- 1707; (03) 546-7404 (9 a.m-3 p.m.).