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Sexism on the Stage

Oregon State University presents The Feeble-Mindedness of Woman
Photo by Graham K0islingbury

Any of you ladies out there ever stumble upon an idea for a huge work project while you’re busy folding the never-ending pile of laundry and dinner is boiling over? Next time this happens, take a moment to appreciate being a woman in the 21st century by reflecting on the challenges that confronted Gerty Cori. A pioneer in biochemistry and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, Cori had to think and fight for recognition and respect.

Staci Swedeen’s play, The Feeble-Mindedness of Woman, interweaves Cori’s story with a fictional modern tale of an actress struggling for professional validation. Set in the laboratories of the 1930s and ‘40s, as well as in the rehearsal halls of a modern theater troupe, the play delves into the issues of hard work and feminism.

I was curious about the device of a play within a play, because it would seem Cori’s story is more than enough for one stage.  How would it work? Last week I checked in over email with director Vreneli Farber to get the inside scoop. “The structure allows the playwright to show how the discrimination against women that Gerty Cori experienced is still experienced today, to a certain degree,” Farber explains, “and not just in science, but also in theater, as well as other professions.”

Among the structural challenges Farber faces are “working with the cast to create distinctly different characters, since everyone plays at least two different people … I have tried to help the actors create different voice qualities and different bodily movement and gaits to differentiate separate characters from one another. It’s the kind of challenge that helps an actor grow and stretch.”

The director is undaunted by the challenge. “It reinforces my wish to do more directing and acting,” she says.

Faber points out that the message of the play is twofold, as a historical testament as well as a timeless piece of real-life empowerment and inspiration. “Women face obstacles, but with hard work and dedication, they can overcome them,” she says. “Also, the play will have introduced the audience to a remarkable scientist who deserves to be widely known.” 

A message Gerty Cori herself would have approved.

OSU Theatre and The Women’s Giving Circle present The Feeble-Mindedness of Woman Feb. 8-11 at 7:30pm and Sunday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m. A post-show discussion will be held on Saturday, Feb. 11; info at http://oregonstate.edu/dept/theatre/