Shotgun's 'Women Laughing Alone With Salad' Defies Its Own Sense Of The World

There are a lot of problems with Shelia Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad and, interestingly enough, many of them touch on what we might call the limits of representation. Or just simply, what can you get away with on stage. The talented but undisciplined Callaghan wants to get away with everything and director Susannah Martin, quite savvy at staging difficult texts, does her best to make that possible in a game but ungainly Shotgun Players production.

So, this is a failure of strategy and not nerve, form and not talent. The play’s narrative is straight forward, and even though the second act is a slippery refraction of the first, it’s a clear refraction. Guy’s living with the slender and fit Tori but is attracted to the more ample Meredith. All the while, his real love seems to be his mother, an ex-feminist obsessed with aging and radical skin crèmes outside the purview of the FDA.

The outlines of the situation have the spritely makings of a romantic roundelay, laced here and there with sharp, wary jolts of feminist despair. Yet, Callaghan is equally or even more invested in establishing a style that supersedes and comments on the action. The play opens with three women sitting on a park bench, eating salad, and laughing maniacally. You can’t miss the point and yet the action feels belabored, both obvious and drifting towards irrelevance.

You even wonder if the three actresses are playing their characters or the essence of some kind of notion of womanhood. The script suggests characters, but if so the balance seems off in how they relate to each other in the opening and who they are as people in the play. That would seem to be a problem of the production, but I’m not sure that anyone, and the cast is quite talented, has the ability to play both sides of the equation.

What the opening does and other moments like it is unbalance what’s fascinating about Salad—the lives of these people—and places everything under the vise grip of a forced wackiness. It’s clear that Callaghan believes that the world is in a state of hysteria, but for that hysteria to be the dominant reality not only feels forced but also wearisome.

In another early scene Guy’s mother’s uterus falls out of her vagina while shopping. I think the technical term is a prolapsed uterus of the fourth degree. But the real problem is the uncertainty of the staging and how Callaghan ever thought this might play. Any effect can work on stage, but tricky ones—and losing a uterus certainly qualifies as tricky—requires a rigorous aesthetic practice that just isn’t present here.

Callaghan plays everything for fast and easy laughs, but those laughs can’t land when the execution is so unfocussed. Her writing in Salad rests uneasily between aggression and uncertainty and Martin, the cast, and the designers struggle to find a way to pull it off. I think they make mistakes—the acting is too broad, arch, and telegraphed, the stage too open to give the scenes an architectural focus and shape—but in their defense they’re merely following Callaghan’s lead.

When the play works it’s because the scenes calm down and let us come to the characters. After a prolonged ménage-à-trois between Guy, Tori, and Meredith, Meredith becomes overwhelmed with shame. It’s such a human reaction to sexual pyrotechnics that you feel the play enter reality, where outrage means something and has serious consequences.

All of sudden the actors know what to do instead of searching for a style of performance to match the play’s aesthetic ambitions. Freed from ideas and commentary, Callaghan’s hysteria turns real rather than conceptual, a twisted combination of farce and drama that’s strangely moving. Both genres require a sense of interior sensibility to work and that’s what the play resists for most of its almost two-hour running time.

Outrage and effect only happen within a social context and when you lose that sense of the lived world all you’re left with is a series of random effects. Callaghan’s a talented writer who’s skipping the gritty details of what is for now an incomplete vision. Without giving anything away, she moves closer in that direction in the second act, but it’s still marred by unfocussed and unnecessary effects that elude clear representation.

And in the end clarity is the most outrageous act we can inflict upon the world.

A Couple of Stray Thoughts

  1. In this age of increasing moral seriousness, we need writers like Callaghan to get the balance between outrage and social observation right.

  2. The best and most recent examples of the way farce, drama, and soap opera excess can mix are Penelope Skinner’s lovely and biting The Village Bike (also produced by Shotgun) and Thomas Bradshaw’s wildly controversial and stunning Thomas and Sally (produced by the Marin Theatre Company). Both are rooted in reality, have the true spirit of outrage in them, and take on all the details of the ugly, beautiful mess of everyday life.

‘Women Laughing Alone with Salad’ runs through November 18 at the Ashby Stage. For tickets and information click here.