Pictured: Echaka Agba, Daniella Pereira, and Jennifer Engstrom. Photo by Charles Osgood.
By Rachel Weinberg
Sheila Callaghan’s WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD, now in a Chicago premiere at Theater Wit, opens with just that: Three women (Echaka Agba, Jennifer Engstrom, and Daniella Pereira) sit on a park bench, eating from large bowls of lettuce in complete silence. The silent salad consumption becomes more intense as the scene continues, but the energy completely changes when Guy (Japhet Balaban) emerges on the scene. Suddenly, all three salad-eating actors become more interested in attracting his attention. In this initial scene, Callaghan launches us into the hilarious and absurd world of her play—a world which director Devon de Mayo’s superlative cast fully embraces.
Yet while this scene may strike audiences as absurd, that seems to be precisely Callaghan’s point. Though no dialogue is spoken in the first few minutes of the play, Callaghan beautifully sets up her exploration of the messages that women receive through advertising—that, among other qualities, they should love salad and be perennially cheerful. And by bringing a male interloper into the scene, she also demonstrates that many of these advertising messages are filtered through the male gaze.
Under de Mayo’s taut, creative direction, this ensemble milks Callaghan’s play for all its worth—leaning into the play’s many oddities in order to drive home the painful truths about the myriad of messages women receive about their bodies and their behaviors. The uniqueness of Callaghan’s playwriting and the production, however, make it so that SALAD never feels didactic. Although this is a play very much about women, Callaghan’s central narrative focuses on Guy, who indeed has a rather troubled relationship with them. We see this in Guy’s awkward interactions with his mother Sandy (Engstrom), who over the course of the play goes to ever more extraordinary and gruesome lengths to maintain her youthfulness and her looks. And as the first act unfolds, we see Guy caught between two women that represent some of his greatest fantasies. Guy’s girlfriend Tori (Pereira) has a seemingly “perfect,” toned body, but she struggles with an unhealthy self-image and a dangerous relationship with food—even though Guy fails to completely understand this. On the other hand, Meredith (Agba) is a confident woman comfortable in her own skin and her own sexuality. Guy finds himself drawn to both of these women, though it becomes clear that he does not quite understand how to interact with either of them. I don’t want to spoil it here, but the second act also provides a fascinating lens from which to explore all that unfolds in the first.
Callaghan interweaves this story arc with various scenes that comment on the play’s themes in a Brechtian manner. Among other moments, we see Agba give a hilarious performance in “The Dance of the Seven Lettuces.” And, yes, a great number of lettuce leaves are involved. Both Guy’s journey and these vignettes work together to drive home Callaghan’s powerful and thought-provoking exploration of the overwhelming and conflicting messages American women are given about their bodies and their self-images. Joseph A. Burke’s brilliant projection design adds dimension, too, as we are oftentimes overwhelmed with images. Arnel Sancianco’s sparse set design allows us to easily understand where each scene takes place even with minimal set pieces, and Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes add definition to each of the characters.
The ensemble dives into SALAD with no fear, and to borrow from some advertising parlance, sell each of their characters with emotional integrity. As Guy, Balaban finds a nice balance between clueless and sympathetic. Engstrom is particularly hilarious as Sandy and stays connected to her character’s truth. Pereira convincingly portrays all of Tori’s aching insecurities and her character’s franticness. Agba owns her character’s confidence, but also allows us to see the vulnerability that lies beneath.
In WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD, Callaghan explores critical issues surrounding the messages women receive about themselves and their bodies in advertising and in society in a style that is entirely unique to her. SALAD may at times seem quirky and brash, but that is only because Callaghan is ultimately holding up a mirror to society. Many of the moments in SALAD seem weird because Callaghan makes explicit that which is often swept under the rug. De Mayo and the ensemble do a terrific job bringing all of the absurdities and the truths of this play to the stage with compelling immediacy.
WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD runs through April 29th. For more information visit theaterwit.org.