For 124 years, Jack the Ripper has tantalized scores of amateur and professional sleuths, crime researchers and ghoul addicts, yet despite a boatload of speculations, his identity remains unknown. In contrast, his victims—all of whose names are known—have been reduced to gory mutilations, detailed lists of wounds (and their specific placements), eviscerations and clothing inventories.
Now, in a confluence of superb writing, directing and acting, Centenary Stage Company Women's Playwrighting Series has restored these invisible women to life, given them humanity and dignity in Aoise Stratford's jaw-dropping play, The Unfortunates, now receiving its world premiere in the Edith Bolte black box theater in Hackettstown. It is an hour and a half of theater that is not to be missed!
The back story to these lurid murders is recounted by one of the "unfortunates," widows, young girls with no skills, alcoholics and prostitutes making "connections" in the stews of Whitechapel, London. In the role of Mary Jane Kelly, played masterfully by Diane Cherkas, Stratford has given us a real person, one of the Ripper's victims and a friend of at least two of those women who met a grisly end. The Unfortunates has been written as a one woman play, but Kelly inhabits her tales with a variety of characters, from her abusive fellow Joe to a cop to a perverted upper class "john" to a doctor testifying at the inquest for Cath Eddowes. Oh, and then there's the audience, standing in for the only other person in the Ten Bells Public House that foggy night in early November 1888, forcing us to be involved in the play rather than mere onlookers. Indeed, during the talk back with the three women after the play, several men seated in the front row said they felt a bit unnerved when Cherkas appeared to be looking directly at them as she addressed unseen characters.
Through Mary's recitation, we learn quite a bit about the difficulties of life in the back alley slums of Victorian London. Cherkas is affectionately droll as she imitates Liz Sharp's pronounced lisp (the result of missing front teeth) and Cath Eddowes' drunkenness. The tale of Cath's rescuing Mary from the gutter and sewing up her ripped clothing, even cradling Mary's injured head in her lap, bespeaks the loyalty of friendship, of people looking out for one another. She only loses her composure when replaying Cath's inquest; that her friend is reduced to a list of cuts and clothing and that her boyfriend lied about her, thus stripping the dead woman of her reality, brings a tear to Mary's eye.
For 90 minutes, the Edith Bolte black box theater was silent, except for the eerie sounds of a bell chiming the quarter hours, fog horns and barking dogs. Judith Stevenson-Ly's taut direction is to be commended for keeping the dramatic tension ratcheted up, and Diane Cherkas's tour de force performance lets us picture Victorian mores, hypocrisy and debauchery although we never leave the terrifically evocative set designed by Evan Hill.
Will Rothfuss's lighting is appropriately atmospheric without being overtly spooky. It is especially effective in the scene where Mary re-enacts the inquest. Colin Whitley's sound bring the outside into the public house with hooting foghorns, clanging bells and ominous barking of police dogs adding to the eeriness. Julia Sharp has dressed Mary Jane Kelly in clothes that suggest more prim maiden than prostitute, reminding us of the double standard so prevalent in 19th-century England.
Jack the Ripper never appears in The Unfortunates, nor is he ever mentioned by name. The only direct reference to him is a phrase in a letter he wrote to the newspapers, crowing that in the future "people will suggest that [he] brought in the twentieth century." How prescient he was, for we have learned more about the Virginia Tech killer and George Zimmerman than we ever cared to know. And Mary Kelly's pronouncement that "London loves the ghastly" is just as true of 21st century American society, especially given cable news' insatiable appetite for what they decide is "news."
Playwright Aoise Stratford (below, right) is to be commended for focusing less on the monster and more on his female victims, restoring their humanity and what little dignity they had and making us care about them for at least 90 minutes. The endurance of this ghoulish legend is astounding. Instead of just 24 hours, it's lasted 124 years—and counting, I am sure!
The Unfortunates had its inception in Centenary Stage Company's workshop for women playwrights two years ago. After some tweaking and further development, it was chosen to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Women Playwrights Series. In fact, Centenary Stage Company regularly devotes about 30% of its season to works by women. As one can see by this wonderful play, it is a worthwhile endeavor and one that deserves attention. It was heartening to see an audience of mixed ages on opening weekend. Here's hoping The Unfortunates will keep them coming back to support local professional theater.
The Unfortunates runs through April 29 at the David and Carol Lackland Center, 715 Grand Avenue, Hackettstown, on the campus of Centenary College. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908.979.0900 or visit online at www.centenarystageco.org.
Photos by Bob Eberle.