A lifetime relationship between two women explores the perks and price of freedom

What a fantastic theater Benchmark has become in just a few short years. Since taking over the Lakewood facility previously occupied by the Edge Theatre, “The Bench” has shown again and again what great theater looks like in a small space.

The latest don’t-miss show is Bull in a China Shop, an all-woman play based on the true-life relationship of Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks. An exploration of the lives of these two women — lovers, academics and leaders of the women’s suffrage movement a century ago — Bryna Turner’s play is both an eye-opening history lesson about two brave women and, sorry to say, a depressing reminder of how much further we still have to go.

Taking the helm as director is Kate Gleason, whose crisp handling of the play’s dozens of short scenes and many moving set pieces is a master class in itself of how to manage a complex piece of theater. In 90 minutes (no intermission), Bull in a China Shop covers nearly 40 years in the lives of Woolley and Marks, from the early days of their relationship (Marks was Woolley’s student at Wellesley) and through the several decades Woolley served as president of Mount Holyoke College.

I don’t love the title of this play — invoking as it does a symbol of male power — but the imagery is apt: Woolley arrives at Holyoke with the idea of shaking things up. Transforming the college from one aimed primarily at educating young women in preparation for marriage, Woolley lands with the force of a tornado, cans half the staff and makes it clear that empowering women as full members of society is the mission. And in a time when lesbians were expected to use the “Boston marriage” façade of just living together as friends, Woolley arrives with Marks in tow and no apologies (although it takes them many years to finally live in the same house together).

As Woolley, Gabriella Cavallero is a marvel. She inhabits the character 100 percent, building out the personality of a fiercely independent woman who’s tough as nails but also vulnerable. Gleason gets a powerful performance out of Cavallero, allowing her to explore every facet of Woolley as she negotiates an array of tricky situations that continually put her at odds with Marks, the college board, the dean and the norms of the day.

It’s fascinating to see her struggle to balance the duties of the college president with her own political beliefs. As suffrage bursts into the mainstream, she learns some of the college’s donors are having second thoughts about funding a school too far out in front. Woolley initially hedges, then throws her full support behind it.

As Marks, Lauren Bahlam is exceptional as well, playing the character as a brilliant but bratty revolutionary with little patience or appreciation for the forces her partner is dealing with. Bahlam’s entirely believable portrayal of Marks allows us to understand the struggle and frustration women experienced back then, and both actresses do an admirable job depicting the challenging but long-lasting (55 years) relationship between the two women.

Bull in a China Shop

Cindy Laudadio-Hill as Dean Marks with Gabriella Cavallero. Matthew Gale Photography

Strong supporting cast

Bull has just three other characters, but each are key. The first one we meet is Dean Welsh (Cindy Laudadio-Hill), who functions as Woolley’s eyes and ears to the board and faculty. With her spectacles clipped to her suit jacket, her hair in a bun and her bloomers in a perpetually bunch, Laudadio-Hill balances a career academic who might lean toward convention with another powerful women tired of kowtowing to power — and men. The final scene she has with Woolley as they prepare to part ways is touching and funny.

Philosophy professor Felicity (Regina Fernandez) offers comic relief in some of the play’s most anxious moments, and she also serves as the campus gossip. Fernandez plays the character with a chirpy flourish that’s always both funny and revealing.

Playing one of the students whose fallen head over heels for Marks, Tresha Farris is tremendous as Pearl. Smoking cigarettes after class with Marks leads to a fascination and appreciation for the relationship she has with Woolley, and Pearl insinuates herself into the situation in some odd and surprising ways.

Farris is a joy to watch in this role — a young woman so besotted with her crush that she becomes a caricature of herself. But then, she bowls us over in a solo scene toward the end of the show that’s as raw and heartfelt as anything I’ve seen onstage in a while. This is an actress to watch.

Bull in a china Shop

Gabriella Cavallero — Matthew Gale Photography

Staccato scenes

Since it’s based on real lives, Bull may lack the satisfying conclusion of a fictional play where the bows can be tied more precisely. The passage of time isn’t always clear, and since the play is based on letters between Woolley and Marks, not all the detail is painted in.

That’s why, I imagine, Turner opted for the many short scenes. Each is bridged by a short, loud blast of music from female artists ranging from Janis Joplin to Courtney Barnett — it’s a well-curated playlist (props to sound designer and Bench executive director Rachel Rogers). It may take a little while to acclimate to this hit-and-run style of storytelling, but for the most part, it works.

Also of note is the clever, well-designed set by Tina Anderson. In the blackouts between scenes, the actors are able to quickly transform studies into bedrooms and offices into parlors in short order. Along with Turner’s design, a shout-out is in order for lead carpenter Jeff Jesmer and his assistants Don Fuller and Drew Hirschboeck who put it all together in the limited space they had to work.

Costume designer Ann Piano did a nice job with the period dress, making do for the most part with one or two outfits that managed to fit every scene.

Bull in a China Shop is a beautiful show, zooming in as it does on the lives of two women who wrote their own rules in a time when that was anything but easy to do. Cavallero and Bahlman do such a nice job portraying the bravery of these women, making uncomfortable and non-conforming choices about their own lives despite what those around them might consider “proper.”

As Gleason says in her program notes, their response to the idea of becoming “good, pious wives” was something along the lines of “Fuck that!” The play bears that out in fine style, propelled by Gleason’s firm hand and a dream cast.