It is rare to see a play written in 1908 that can be described as feminist, but Diana of Dobson’s, currently playing at Los Angeles’s Antaeus Theatre Company in a rare production, is a delightful surprise. Written by British suffragist Cicely Hamilton and directed by Casey Stangl, this romantic comedy challenges typical notions about what is “expected” of women while also exploring the larger issue of classism.
Diana Massingberd (Abigail Marks) is a shop assistant in the hosiery department at Dobson’s Drapery Emporium, a large and popular London store. Her wages are pitiful, and she shares depressing living accommodations with several other girls from work. One night, she receives a letter that a relative has passed away, leaving her an inheritance of 300 pounds, which is equivalent to about 250,000 modern US dollars. Rather than invest the money or spend it “responsibly,” Diana impulsively decides to drop it all on one wild month, or however long the money lasts. She wants to go all out and do everything she has never been able to do—travel, wear expensive clothes, and get a taste of the high society life. She even adopts an assumed identity and backstory for her adventure, pretending to be a widow.
She ends up at a fancy hotel in Switzerland, where her white lies and natural mysterious allure quickly get her in over her head. Soon, Diana has not one, but two men who want to marry her—Sir Jabez Grinley (Tony Amendola), an older businessman exactly like the type who have expected Diana to work for a pittance her entire life, and Captain Bretherton (John Bobek), a sweet aristocrat who does not have much money in the bank. Bretherton’s aunt, Mrs. Cantelupe (Rhonda Aldrich) becomes fixated on the idea of him marrying Diana for her money, but his social awkwardness and good-hearted nature give him pause. Ultimately, Diana finds herself surprised by some of the lessons she learns during her time experiencing how the other half lives, but like in any good romantic comedy, this story has a happy ending.
Diana is a fun and fierce character, played with beautiful confidence and nuance by Marks, who is just as good in the quiet moments as she is in the ones where she is the life of the party. She feels much like a modern heroine, and Hamilton was clearly ahead of her time in writing this piece. It shines a light on the overwhelming wage gap that still persists today, and in particular the injustices that women face in the workforce and in life. Bobek is also very affecting as Bretherton, who starts out kind of bumbling but proves himself to be a thoughtful, empathetic man more than willing to put in the work to earn Diana’s trust and love—and she does make him work for it. In the brief first act, the female ensemble gets a chance to shine as Diana’s coworkers, reacting to their friend’s rash decision with the correct combination of support and concern.
The design elements are also strong, particularly the costumes (A. Jeffrey Schoenberg), which emphasize the class differences in the world. The set (Nina Caussa) is amusing—when the action moves to the Switzerland hotel, fabric painted with a depiction of a fancy couch or chair is fastened to minimalist furniture, alluding to the fact that Diana’s wealth is but a tenuous illusion. The story is well-paced and told with two intermissions, with two very brief acts bookending the longer middle section. In a time when so many older works that feel dated and problematic for women are continuously revived despite those issues, it is refreshing to see a lesser known play that is so progressive, not to mention fun.
Diana of Dobson’s runs at Antaeus Theatre Company’s Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center through June 3rd. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including 2 intermissions. In keeping with Antaeus tradition, this production is partner-cast, and the performers mentioned in this review will not appear on all dates. For a cast schedule, click here. Performances are Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased here.