The Dignity Circle

The Grift Is On

By: - Jul 05, 2023

Itinerant evangelists.  Faith healers.  Rain makers.  Fortune tellers.  Ponzi promoters.  All variety of flim-flam artists convey confident conviction along with the abilities to persuade and evade as necessary.  So it is with Angela, the grand mistress of The Dignity Circle.  Opening with the alluring pitch “How would you like to receive $40,000 with no strings attached?” she lures her prey into her seductive scheme.  But one of the devices of the Circle is wearing masks, which suggests that there is indeed something hidden beneath the surface.

Lauren Smerkanich has crafted a tight drama well suited to its 90-minute length.  Especially in the wake of the “Me, Too” movement, women’s empowerment has gained momentum.  The playwright’s central character, Angela, has concocted what amounts to a women’s support group with weekly meetings that she promotes as a refuge for women which helps them reach their potential.  She argues that men have safe places women lack and that women’s successes often fail to be recognized by men.

The grift is that the participants make Venmo payments from their cell phones that go into Angela’s pocket without the provision of any tangible service other than networking and pep talks.  And to encourage compliance, the payments take place at the meetings and in unison to the dinging bells of the payments being actuated.  Only if a member fulfills unlikely-to-attain recruitment quotas will some of the money devolve to that member.

Angela is performed by Sierra Marcks, who brings absolute assurance to the role with a commanding presence.  With her non-stop bravado she totally convinces the viewer that she could really be the huckster she portrays.  Marcks captivates with a strong and decisive voice, a disarming smile, and an ability to control the conversation.  Her character manufactures backstories about suppressed women, particularly about her mother, to conform to the world view that she preaches.

Angela’s departure point is that women fail to reach their potential because their abilities are subjugated by men who dominate them.  There is no little amount of (and often deserved) misandry in what she espouses.  It would be easy to criticize the playwright for her unflattering depictions of men, but each of the females are rendered as highly flawed as well.  We sympathize with the women’s plights yet wonder how they can be drawn in by what should appear to be a con.  That said, our country’s political stage and evangelical preaching are rife with deception that a frightening percentage of people are happy to swallow because it gives them hope for protected status or improved standing.

Somewhat ironically, Angela superficially appears to have a happy marriage.  She encourages her husband (played by Dov Hassan) to retire early from a job he dislikes, knowing the financial consequences.  But he lacks assertiveness and ambition, and the subtext is that she is a controlling individual.  She would exercise more power over him as the sole breadwinner.

Several cohorts of Circle members have previously been established and filled.  As they recruit others, members are elevated in crowning ceremonies to higher levels in the Circle’s noble hierarchy from lady-in-waiting and hopefully to queen.

At the time of forming a new group, Angela runs into an old acquaintance at the supermarket.  Unlike Angela’s typical quarry of professional women, Judith is a homemaker who happens to have an abusive husband (Adam Roy) who beats her yet tells her he loves and needs her.  Judith is also very well acted by Rebecca Pingree.  Judith will actually evolve, and Pingree effectively gradates the change.  Judith will gain confidence and become a confidant to and advocate for Angela, yet she will never have the charisma to compete with her – pretty much the perfect right-hand woman.

Two other female characters appear.  Katie (Heather Kellogg Baumann) is bombastic – full of resentment and scorn.  Though a teacher, single mother Heather (Kimberly Ridgeway) suffers from the poverty of supporting a child with leukemia.  Notwithstanding the prospect of making some big bucks, she maintains cautious scepticism and is more analytical than emotional.

Five of six stage roles are one-note, but how much character development can occur in a short play anyway?  The parts are well drawn and differentiated, and despite the broad brushstrokes, they are interesting and well-performed archetypes.

Family plays a role in the narrative.  In scenes with split staging, the two married couples separately deal with their issues, which in a sense underscores Tolstoy’s dictum that all happy families are happy in the same way, but unhappy families differ in their unhappiness.

Other themes that are well developed concern the interrelated needs for belonging, love, and having at least one person to be able to relax with and trust.  The Circle itself is emblematic of belonging.  And despite Angela’s invincible public persona, she reveals her love needs to Judith in shared flattery and honesty.  Angela even exposes her contrary predilections for deceit and the simple need for touch, when she tells that as a child she would feign being asleep so that her mother was forced to carry her to bed.

Director Gary Graves’ guidance is sure and pace is quick.  Although the plot takes a not-altogether-unexpected turn, the intense play maintains audience interest and involvement while offering a cautionary tale of the price of gullibility.

“The Dignity Circle” is written by Lauren Smerkanich; produced in a world premiere by Central Works, and plays at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, CA through July 23, 2023.