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Theater Review: Vindication

Lin McEwan’s “Vindication,” which just opened at the ProArts Theatre in Kihei,  is an original drama she wrote and directed. She is also the star, playing Mary Wollstonecraft, in a show made up of scenes from Wollstonecraft’s remarkable life (1759-1797)as an author, boundary-pusher and a woman far ahead of her time. If this reads like the play is a vanity piece for McEwan or a chance for showy theatrics, rest assured it isn’t. If anything, the play is led by McEwan but is, overall, a collection of absorbing scenes that showcase excellent performances. What could have been a stodgy history lesson is actually a thoughtful examination of how pivotal moments and individuals influence us in profound ways.

We meet Wollstonecraft as a young woman, played with startling maturity and charisma by Dakota Welch. As she cares for her mother (a great Noel Overbay) and a cruel father (an excellent Keith Welch), Wollstonecraft’s empathy and thinking-outside-the-box begin to take shape. When McEwan takes over the role of Wollstonecraft, the character is moving forward in her life, challenging societal views towards women and enraging William Godwin (a wonderful Jefferson Davis). As Wollstonecraft’s fame and infamy spread, her unconventional life extends to her relationships, which reflect her defiance of societal customs.

“Vindication,” co-directed by Tina Kailiponi and featuring its supporting cast in multiple roles, is dynamic and witty, a piece that tickles the mind, as its rich with ideas and insight. While the dialog frequently sounds like Jane Austin, it actually plays like Tom Stoppard. This is a masterful work, as entertaining as it is immediate.

In full disclosure, I had the opportunity to see a shorter, try-out version of “Vindication” in January at the Maui Fringe Festival. The event took place at the Historic Iao Theater.  It was a striking, promising debut, though what stands now is richer, as the potential of the premise has been fully realized. The one aspect I miss from the early run: the sparse quality of the sets, as the production at the Iao Theater offered sleight set pieces. The approach worked, as the splendid costumes (provided by Sela Tyron, MAPA, Maui OnStage and Seabury Hall) truly are the sets. While the additional set pieces in the current production (by McEwan and Kailiponi) aren’t obtrusive, less is more when the emphasis is on ideas, not settings.

In our deeply troubled age, “Vindication” could have played like a polemic. In fact, the issues Wollstonecraft brings up as areas of struggle (such as general sexism and public condescension)are, sadly, not uncommon today. Yet, McEwan’s play isn’t angry or heavy handed in the slightest. In fact, it’s smart, peppered with humor and alarmingly tender. Rather than provoke and stir the audience with speechifying , “Vindication” celebrates the intelligence and longevity of women, as well as the possibilities of a life lived well. This isn’t a soapbox for injustice but an encouragement for women (and humans in general) to pursue their passions, seek equality and push through the obstacles that lay ahead. It leaves you with a warm feeling inside, as Wollstonecraft’s journey (and the legacy of her daughter) are deeply inspiring. This is a play that needs to live on, be revived often and, like its subject matter, never fade away.

Vindication is playing at the ProArts Theater Nov 16-17th at 7:30Pm and Sunday Nov 18th at 3PM. Tickets are available at proartsmaui.com or by calling 808-463-6550.

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