Villager Theater Special
The making (and unmaking) of ‘The Marriage Bed’
Last-minute jitters: Nona Shepphard and Tali Brandy in “The Marriage Bed,” a London hit about same-sex marriage, premiering here at the Sanford Meisner Theater.
By Vivienne Leheny
“I never wanted to think about all these things and I never have because they weren’t available to me. I contented myself with berating my heterosexual friends that got married because they betrayed me and the cause by doing something I was prevented from doing.”
So says Val Carr to her young lover in Nona Shepphard’s “The Marriage Bed” a London-based hit play that’s made it’s way across the pond for a limited run at the Sanford Meisner Theater in Chelsea. Val is trying to explain to her beloved partner, Jeni, exactly why it is she’s so ambivalent about getting married, now that the British government has passed the Civil Partnership Act allowing the nation’s gay and lesbian couples to be legally recognized and granting them rights previously reserved for married heterosexuals, including the full range of tax and citizenship entitlements as well as visitation and next of kin rights in hospitals. A middle-aged “radical lesbian feminist” who’s been involved in a longtime relationship with the closeted Jeni (who’s twenty years her junior), Val is suffering a bit of disconnect over Jeni’s sudden interest in getting hitched.
These lively and complicated characters hash out the decidedly universal relationship issues of commitment, desire, and the changing roles that come with marriage, in Shepphard’s “two-hander” (two person play) which is making it’s U.S. premiere now through November 19th. Shepphard is an actress, director and award-winning writer based in London with over 100 productions and 40 commissioned plays under her belt. Somehow, she also finds time to helm the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s (RADA) Acting Shakespeare Summer Course for Professional Actors.
Shepphard says she was inspired to write the play after the Civil Partnership Act went into effect on December 5th, 2005 and a rush of lesbian and gay couples thronged government registries to obtain licenses to marry. Among the couples applying that day were Shepphard’s cousin and her partner. Several months later they were declared wife and wife, in front of a delighted gathering of friends and family.
“They had a brilliant wedding,” says Shepphard, a striking, red-headed fireplug with warm eyes and a wicked smile. “Really wonderful.” At the time, Shepphard was under commission to write a topical play for the British theatre company, Ruby Tuesday Productions. It occurred to her that the passage of the act presented a ripe topic for dramatic exploration, not so much on a political level as on a personal one. She was fascinated by how the normalizing effects of marriage might be received by members of a typically marginalized community. In Val’s case, the challenge is especially pronounced since she prides herself on being a passionate and vocal outsider a frontline activist in the women’s rights movement who denigrates marriage as “an oppressive, patriarchal institution that imprisons and commodifies women.” Now her beautiful and compelling girlfriend has called the question and Val is forced to confront her own deep-seated prejudices about marriage and about her relationship with Jeni.
“What I’m really interested in are the conflicts related to class and ethnicity. Age is also a factor here since Jeni is much younger and doesn’t share Val’s activist experience in the women’s movement,” says Shepphard.
Val is a 55-year-old London Underground station manager and former schoolteacher who relishes her working class background as the granddaughter of a sailor. In London, Jeni’s character was “Janaya,” a 30-something attorney of Indian descent, raised in a middle class family, married to and then divorced from a successful man. Complicating matters is the fact that her family remains in the dark about her Sapphic identity and, more critically, unaware of her loving relationship with Val. While the women have successfully negotiated the rocky shoals of their demographic differences for seven years, it is the discussion of formally committing to the union that truly rocks the foundation of their partnership.
Shepphard says the only alteration to the play in its transfer from London, was the change from the Indian “Janaya” to the Israeli Jeni reflecting the ethnicity of Tali Friedman, the actress playing the role in the New York production. Shepphard plays Val, a part she originated in London after the actress hired for the role had to bow out due to a film shoot conflict. Beyond this adjustment, the script, and the essential relationship struggle, remain intact.
“It was a bit surprising to me: I had a number of Americans I worked with in London through RADA come to see the show and say ‘You must bring this to America. People need to see it.’ I had no idea how fraught the conversation over gay marriage had become in the States. In England, gay marriage has been a tenet of the Labor Party platform for years and there were lots of party activists pushing for it, so when the Act finally passed, it was very uneventful. Nobody turned much of a hair about it.”
“It will be very interesting to see what happens here in New York,” Shepphard adds. “I think many people straight and gay alike will recognize themselves, their own fears, in these characters. It’s a good time to be talking about this.”
“The Marriage Bed” runs now through November 19th, Wednesdays Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. at the Sanford Meisner Theater (164 11th Avenue, between 22nd and 23rd Streets). Tickets are $30 and can be reserved at 212-352-3101.