Maria Arndt–a woman living between worlds

Maria Arndt–a woman living between worlds

By Edith McCauley

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

Maria Arndt, written by Elsa Bernstein, is currently playing at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, on the Mainstage. Bernstein’s work was ignored because of her identity as a Jew and the fact that the 19th century value system still held sway at the beginning of the 20th, is a play that still has relevance today. Women, even highly educated ones, were consigned to a subservient role. Jean Bethke Eishtain’s recent biography of Jane Addams—Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy—resonates with the same frustrations. Addams’ efforts in establishing Hull House were rewarded with the highest accolades. It was only when she entered the realm of politics and the peace effort that she became reviled by the male-dominated society.

Maria Arndt, a woman of wealth and advantage living in Germany in the early 1900s, too, was torn between her desire for the freedom of these restraints for her gifted daughter, Gemma, and the importance of the facade of respectability. Adding to her dilemma was an unhappy marriage and a relationship with longtime friend, Herr Claussner.

Molly Regan is Maria, whose spiritual beauty so represents the emerging Art Deco era. Flowing hair and softly trailing gowns belie internal strength and determination. Gemma, (Greta Sidwell Honold), mirrors her mother, and their bond is the exact opposite of their neighbor, Von Tucher (Brad Armagost) and his children, Otto (Brad Eric Johnson) and Amanda (Brett Korn). His rigidity and dominance creates two offspring who respond as automatons.

The costume design of Catherine Zuber brilliantly identifies each character. Maria and Gemma, gowned in flowing chiffon, are in sharp contrast to the corseted females of the house, the housekeeper, Agata (Marilynn Bogetich) and Tekla (Courtney Shaughnessy), the maid. Tekla’s errant behavior presages a tragic end for Maria. Amanda, the proper school girl, sparrow-like in her grays, and Otto’s unyielding military garb represent their adherence to their father’s power.

A world traveler, Claussner returns to renew his friendship with Maria. Unshaven, a bit unkempt and inherently dangerous, he tempts her as no one else can. Desperately trying to maintain the aura of faithful wife, she fails miserably.

The classic Empire revival set filled with garden flowers that change from the soft pinks of spring to the brilliant leaves of autumn represent beautifully the rejection of the elaborate decor of the Victorian era. John Lee Beatty, the designer, captures the essence of Maria.

Always the risk taker, Tina Landau’s choice of a play of seemingly little importance shows her insight. Recreating the life of a woman whose existence might be that of a leading lady in a modern soap opera took daring and commitment. She gives Maria Arndt the importance she deserves. Gemma’s lines are those of a teenager. In a few instances, they are those of my own granddaughter. This is not a flaw in translation, but an artistic change that enhances rather than detracts.

The production continues through Sunday, March 31, 2002. For tickets call Steppenwolf at (312)335-1650, or purchase online at

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