Hartford Stage Company’s production of “Cloud 9,” by Caryl Churchill, closed this past weekend, but not before tackling complicated social issues surrounding sexuality and heteronormative gender roles - and rejecting them in one big guffaw.
The play is framed as an end to British colonialism, represented in Act I, which takes place in Africa in the 1870s. It is here that we are introduced to a British household that consists of Clive (Mark H. Dold), his wife Betty (Tom Pecinka) and their son Edward (Mia Dillon) at the height of colonialism. Supporting the family is their servant Joshua (William John Austin), a maid named Ellen (Sarah Lamp) and Betty’s mother, Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas).
The plot throughout the act begins by showcasing Churchill’s rejection of gender roles and the nature behind the sexual repression in the Victorian era and relationship taboos.
These ideas are contrasted later in Act II, when the play jumps into 1979 London. In a dramatic scenic change, everything on the set is torn away, exposing falling pipes and torn backdrops collapsing-a strong-arm expression of the deconstruction of gender roles that Churchill portrays executed via the set designer, Nick Vaughn.
The play concerns itself with discussions of feminism, sexual politics and the way in which gender is represented. The play, written in 1979, challenges these ideas at a time of political change and unrest.
The winter of 1978 to 1979 has become known as the “winter of discontent” according to writings in the plays program by its dramaturg, Fiona Kyle. At this time, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister and the National Union of Railwaymen, as well as the workers of Ford Motors, were on strike demanding higher wages according to Kyle, to which Churchill states as “the bitter end of colonialism.”
The closing of this era is exaggerated upon in Act II. Some of the actors have now changed roles and genders, a key feature of this Churchill play. The same family is portrayed, only 25 years later. Betty (Mia Dillon) has been divorced from her husband Clive. Edward (Tom Pecinka), struggles with his sexual identity as gay man, coupled with his boyfriend Gerry (William John Austin) who represents a sexually free life-style, unchained by the ideas Churchill is rejecting.
Churchill says, according to Kyle, that this timeframe was “the changing sexuality of our own time.”
This production of “Cloud 9” stands as a reminder of progress in terms of humanities and social development. From an era of repression and scandal to a liberating exploration of one’s own sexuality, director Elizabeth Williamson fuses these ideas with comedy and preserves the playwright’s messages. 1979 and 2017 are oil and water, though. Much of what was fought for regarding LGBTQ+ rights and feminism has eased its way into our modern day cultural norms, yet “Cloud 9” shows that there may still be some work to do.
Matthew Gilbert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.