Eventide's 'Quakeress' Focuses On First Woman To Earn A Ph.D.

By: Jennifer Sexton-Riley

Topics: Local Theater

Imogen Cooper.  COURTESY PHOTO

Eventide Theatre Company's Virtual Playhouse is back with an original work written and directed by Matthew Senie. “Quakeress” is the story of Helen Magill White, the first American woman to earn a Ph.D. The play explores duty, ambition, and 19th-century conceptions of womanhood and domesticity.

Helen is torn between her Quaker upbringing – her ideals of virtue and equality – and the expectations put upon femininity at the time. We see Helen during several key moments in her life: as a student striving for excellence while pushing the boundaries of an educational frontier; as a wife and mother, balancing her intellectual instinct and skill as an educator with her dedication to domestic responsibility; and in her old age, reflecting upon the course of her life, what it means to give and to receive, and the nature of legacy, both in life and in death.

Playwright and director Matthew Senie, a Virginia resident who spent childhood summers at his grandfather's home on the Cape, came across the story of the first American woman to earn a Ph.D. while he was doing research for another project.

“Several of my plays are set in the early 20th and late 19th centuries,” Senie said. “Working on a separate play last summer, I wanted to confirm that one of my female characters could have plausibly held a Ph.D. in a particular subject at the time. Through that research I came across Helen Magill White, the first American woman to earn a Ph.D., and a fierce advocate for coeducation. Her life is both historically significant and simply fascinating in itself. She was inexhaustible in her pursuits and almost equally idiosyncratic.”

Senie said that he relied on Glen C. Altschuler’s biography of Helen while writing the script, and he tried to be faithful to the personalities he so effectively illuminates in his work. Many pieces of dialogue in the play are taken directly from the diaries and letters of the characters’ real-life counterparts, and the title comes from the diary of Helen’s husband, Andrew.

He explained that he cast the production without much regard for the performers’ locations since everyone would be working virtually.

“It was my first time working with Sara Parcesepe and Julia Owen,” Senie said. “A few months earlier I had done a small virtual table read for a different play. That reading included Daniel Abraham Stevens and Imogen Cooper, who both appear in 'Quakeress.' Imogen also appeared in a live performance of another of my plays in February 2020 in D.C.”

Senie said that “Quakeress” was written for the stage, and he feels that ultimately that’s where it belongs. He doesn’t plan to work remotely for any longer than necessary, and said that while he's amazed by the adaptability of many artists in this time of crisis and quarantine, he prefers to work in-person.

“That said, I loved the process of directing 'Quakeress,' due largely to the talent and innovation of the cast,” Senie said. “All four of them are fantastic performers for whom I have so much respect and gratitude, and I am so appreciative of Eventide for choosing to broadcast the play.”

Eventide Theatre Company's artistic director Chris Edwards said Senie is a prolific playwright whose creative, interesting work is exactly what Eventide's Virtual Playhouse was looking for to reach out to the community as we wait for a transition back to in-person productions.

“The cast is impressive, and they are participating from all over the country,” Edwards said. “They all came together in this virtual production. One thing the pandemic has produced is this type of bright spot. A silver lining. We've found out of necessity that we can become really creative with online stuff and find incredible ways to bring people together across miles.”

After the unavoidable cancellations of shows in 2020, the Eventide Virtual Playhouse has made a commitment to produce all of the shows it has announced in its 2021 season, with no cancellations. The first production, “Trojan Woman,” written and directed by local playwright Jim Dalglish, will be co-produced with Cotuit Center for the Arts, starting on April 9 with one single admission ticket spanning several nights of programming. The second production of the season will be “Twain by the Tale” by Dennis Snee with music by Gregg Saeger. It will begin streaming on May 27 for a limited 12-performance run. The second half of the season sees a return to what Eventide officials hopes will be more conventional theater. Steve Ross returns this fall to direct “The Last Five Years,” a creative musical by Jason Robert Brown. It will open Sept. 9 for 12 performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday Matinees until Sept. 26. Eventide Theatre Company’s final production of the year welcomes back the uniquely comic voice of writer Rich Orloff. “HA!” a collection of Rich Orloff's three most popular one-act comedies, directed by Toby Wilson, will open Oct. 7, and will run for 12 performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday Matinees until Oct. 24.

“Quakeress” will be presented on Sunday, April 4 at 4 p.m. Find more information and register for this free virtual event at bit.ly/ETC-Quakeress. Visit the Eventide Theatre Company channel on YouTube, eventidearts.org or facebook.com/eventidetheatrecompany.