How far are you willing to go for your art?
If you’re Margaret Meier (Ashlie Atkinson), the up-and-coming opera star at the center of Bay Street Theater’s world premiere of The Forgotten Woman, there’s no easy answer. This exciting and passionate new play from Jonathan Tolins is, on the surface, about the peculiar and quirky world of opera professionals. But you needn’t worry if you’re not an opera fan—the play is really about loving something so much you can’t imagine being involved in anything else, even if you have to make painful sacrifices for it.
Margaret Meier is a funny, brash woman on the verge of becoming a major voice in the opera community. While staying in a hotel suite in Chicago during rehearsals for her principal role in Ariadne auf Naxos, Margaret is fussed over by Erick (Mark Junek), her uptight young manager bent on getting her to re-sign with his firm, and husband Rudolph (Robert Stanton), a stiff, casually rude man whom Margaret sees more as her vocal coach than as a lover.
Margaret’s world is turned upside down when an entertainment reporter, Steve (Darren Goldstein, who plays Oscar on The Affair), arrives to interview her. She quickly recognizes Steve from her high school years, having co-starred in their school production of Hello Dolly. Steve, who knows nothing about opera, is a breath of fresh air for Margaret, who begins to question the decisions she’s made in her life when he points out that she doesn’t seem to be happy.
Tolins has crafted a complex, interesting cast of characters. The initial impression each character makes in the beginning changes by the play’s bittersweet finale, and everyone—from Margaret, who harbors guilt for leaving her child with her sister for months at a time to perform, to the charming bellhop Jordan (Justin Mark), whose friendliness seems manufactured for tips but proves to be rather genuine—feels human. Tolins’ strong script subverts initial expectations; the audience may think that the world of opera is going to be portrayed as some theatrical farce, but Tolins wisely respects the characters’ work and the world in which they live.
Anyone who’s been involved in the arts—be it a school play, fine art, music—will come to appreciate why these people are so invested in opera. A show-stopping speech from Erick about a legendary incident at the Metropolitan Opera in which audiences booed Placido Domingo’s understudy off the stage is hilarious in its absurdity (especially because it’s a true story), but Erick’s impassioned storytelling leaves everyone riveted, including the audience. In another moment, Margaret’s explanation of the story of Ariadne auf Naxos to an initially disinterested Steve soon grabs his attention because of how intensely she loves her work.
All of these scenes are anchored by strong performances across the board. Atkinson is a powerful actress who delivers a truthful, often brutally honest performance as a woman unhappy with some of the directions her life has gone in. Stanton and Goldstein are great foils for each other; Stanton’s square Rudolph is contrasted sharply by Goldstein’s suave, sexy performance as Steve. Junek, whose character could have come off as shrill and annoying in lesser hands, gives Erick a vulnerability that is well-hidden until some late-in-the-play twists force him to shed his cold professionalism. And Mark, who is given less to do, does a great job portraying a young guy who is a lot smarter than his simple, chatty demeanor lets on.
The Forgotten Woman is filled with surprises, from the script and characters to the elegant set by Tim Mackabee. Most surprising, however, is how relatable The Forgotten Woman is, using a niche art form like opera to ask universal, difficult questions without providing easy answers. Rudolph and Erick may worry that Margaret’s going to blow out her voice before her show, but The Forgotten Woman never hits a false note.
The Forgotten Woman by Jonathan Tolins runs at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, through June 19. For tickets and more information, visit baystreet.org.