In Penelope Skinner’s Linda, the world is divided into women who wish to be seen and ones who yearn to be invisible. Not all of them get what they want.
The titular Linda wants to shine for all to see. Linda (Janie Dee) describes herself as “[a]n award winning business woman and I didn’t even go to university. Mother of two. Gorgeous husband. I can change a tire, I own my own home, dinner party guests marvel at my home-made Croqembouche and I still fit into the same size ten dress suit I did fifteen years ago.” Linda is performative female excellence personified. But it is performance, whether she realizes it or not. Things are actually quite challenging for Linda but she has not necessarily stopped “achieving” to notice. She has a new, young co-worker, Amy (Molly Griggs), who is nipping at Linda’s heels with fresh ideas and bending the ear of Linda’s boss. Linda’s school-teacher husband Neil (Donald Sage Mackay) is living out his mid-life crisis by playing in a band.
Things are not going as well for her daughters either. Her 25-year-old bi-racial daughter Alice (Jennifer Ikeda) suffers from depression and wears a skunk costume around the house which she never takes off. Her 15-year-old daughter by Neil, Bridget (Molly Ranson), wants to be an actress and change the world, but most of all she does not want be average.
Skinner works hard to create an array of complex female characters in her often funny play, each impacted by the voices around them—work, school, relationships, family. In reaction to these outside forces, the characters cling to different coping mechanisms—denial, relentless positivity, fantasy, retreat, aggression, cutting, religion, and running away.
One of its most successful elements of Skinner’s provoking play is in the way language is weaponized against women. Beyond actual acts of violence and trauma, Skinner shows how cruel remarks, casual sexism, blatant ageism, as well as not listening, silence, acquiescence, and blame can change who we are and what we do. We get a front row seat to these women as they casually and sometimes unintentionally tear at each other with discomfiting ease.
It’s not just competition between Linda and her co-worker (though that may drive aspects of the plot) or the changing fortunes of aging women in the workplace that get Skinner’s focus. More importantly, she addresses the destruction caused by competitive world views and ideologies. There can be no reconciling between advocates of invisibility versus those of visibility. An effort to force women to conform to one or the other as a unified theory of being is another act of violence.
Linda, trying to convince her daughters her philosophy is the right way to address their issues, demonstrates this. She tells Alice the only thing holding her back is herself. When Alice points out sexism and racism as potential barriers, Linda instructs her to “think positive” and not take the racist or sexist so seriously.
Skinner gives each character enough backstory that we understand how Linda got to her ra-ra cheerleader posture and Alice to her skeptical fury. But it does not change how devastating and damaging it is for Alice to keep hearing her mother’s desire for her to embrace a visible, unflustered demeanor that Linda so often wears herself. Linda cannot stop for one moment to comprehend Alice’s need to disappear. Poor Bridget’s often ignored queries by both her mother and father leave her adrift in conflicting messages from her teachers.
Janie Dee is a perpetual motion machine as Linda. She smooths, preens, and smiles away any hiccups in her world domination. Dee makes us utterly convinced of Linda’s confidence regardless of reality. Ikeda is a strong match for Dee and does not get easily pushed around even if her character is quite vulnerable.
For all the messages Skinner may be delivering, she still manages to make the play both a satiric romp and a skewering drama. The play may lose some of its punch as it wends its way to a conclusion (with a couple of plot points a bit convenient and obvious) but it’s quite a ride there.
It might be easy to skate along the surface of the play taking bits of the social messaging and enjoying the high comedy but Skinner has crafted a play that is a lot trickier than it appears at first blush. She keeps subverting our expectations and pushes back at the audience to consider how those expectations were formed in the first place. She finds many ways to make us laugh but makes us further reflect on what we are laughing at or who. Skinner takes great glee in blowing up the pernicious concept of female likability in the characters she puts before us in Linda. We get to dig much deeper into contradictory and unflattering images of women that do not always get such a vivid workout on stage.