Five women gripped, then exploited, in ‘Unrelenting Relaxation'
The chaos created by war often tends to generate human conduct and activities later viewed as shameful or depraved. Looking back upon such incidents can offer insight into human nature and the human condition.
Such is the case with "Unrelenting Relaxation," an original drama by Stages Theatre co-founder Amanda DeMaio. The play had its world premiere at Stages in 1995 and has since enjoyed numerous stagings in both Orange and Los Angeles counties. A new production directed by Mike Martin at Stages' home in downtown Fullerton offers theater fans a chance to explore a dark, little-known corner of world history.
The play's focus is the work of a researcher investigating the abduction and exploitation, during World War II, of European women by the Japanese regime in collaboration with the Nazis and the Russians. Such women were held in bondage as sex slaves in what were known as "houses of relaxation."
The play takes place at an unspecified time after the war's end, when an unnamed interviewer (played by Nicholas Thurkettle) invites several women to a recording studio to tell their stories and have them recorded for posterity.
The women admit that this is the first time they have come forward to speak of experiences they found so degrading, humiliating and brutalizing as to be better left buried in the past. Thus "Unrelenting" exposes not just the pain they endured initially, but the renewed agony of having to relive those horrors by describing them.
The quintet's candor reveals they're shattered and embittered. Perhaps the most damaged is Dorothy Rothschild (Arlyn McDonald, understudied by Stages regular Patti Cumby), who grew up in a small industrial town in Poland, studied classical piano and dreamed of running away with her music teacher and lover to Vienna, where she would perform with that city's symphony orchestra.
Her abduction and sexual enslavement derailed any such hopes, and McDonald shows how the ordeal has forever transformed a sensitive young woman into someone stern, close-mouthed, brittle and unyielding after suffering a grimly ironic fate connected with her love of the piano.
The interviews alternate between Dorothy and Jane Hudson-Burke (Nancy Tyler), a refined British woman whose husband was stationed in Singapore during the war; Hanya Westola (Jill Cary Martin), a housewife and bakery worker from Helsinki, Finland; and Ariela Solis (Jennifer Pearce), a ballet dancer from Paris.
The quartet is joined by a fifth character, Louisa-May Brockman (Elizabeth Serra). A Danish medical student, she was forced to provide medical care to the captives; if she refused, she would also be sexually exploited. Women who refused to comply with their captors, Louisa notes, became the subjects of gruesome medical experiments.
In the wrong creative hands, a script like "Unrelenting Relaxation" could be unremittingly bleak, its subjects' reminiscences repetitive. DeMaio's skills transcend these pitfalls, yielding a heart-rending portrait of women who, although changed forever by their misfortunes, have maintained their dignity.
Martin's casting and direction, and the fine work of his actors, cement the text's qualities while delivering several quietly powerful performances as each firsthand narrative finds its own pulse and individualized path.
Tyler's Jane is ladylike and well-bred and even, at times, the jovial Brit. Pearce effectively communicates Ariela's sadness and disbelief as the Nazis march through Paris. Serra's Louisa initially glows with optimism when describing her happy early life but turns robotic and drained of warmth in relating the medical horrors she witnessed. In statements like "I had no choice," Serra reveals Louisa's searing guilt.
While all five actors excel, McDonald is simply superb, her face and voice etched with muted pain. Also affecting is Martin's demure yet articulate Hanya, benumbed of all emotion from having been raped "all day and all night" for years. Hanya says her trauma so destroyed her self-image that she couldn't return home or face her husband and children, a tragic fact echoed by all of the women.
Director Martin keeps the tone aptly quiet and restrained. In line with this, we only see Thurkettle's interviewer from the back, his voice calm and polite yet inquisitive. The director, Jon Gaw and Brian Fichtner's set design features a ring-like schematic that informs the play's confessional dynamics. As he subtly repositions the women from their places on the circle, Martin's blocking reinforces DeMaio's words. David Chorley's often delicate sound design similarly underscores each woman's narrative.
The characters depicted in "Unrelenting Relaxation" are composites of dozens of actual women. It's a testament to DeMaio's creativity, imagination and playwriting skills that we emerge from Stages Theatre feeling that we've just been privileged to share the terrible yet unforgettable experiences of five remarkable, and remarkably enduring, personalities.
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