The Unfortunates, staged by the new SoloChicago Theatre Company, is an excellent second outing from the company that produced the hit one-man show, Churchill, starring Ronald Keaton, in 2015.
The Unfortunates by Aoise Stratford is a fact-based story of the plight of lower-class women in 1888 Victorian London. Mary Jane Kelly, who is believed to be the last victim of Jack the Ripper, is played by Gail Rastorfer. Through a conversation with a stranger in the Ten Bells Public House, Mary Jane tells the story of her life from Welsh mining town to the Whitechapel district in London’s East End. She was indeed one of the “unfortunates,” poor women who worked as prostitutes because they had no other way to earn a living.
Mary Jane was a young Welsh housewife when her husband, Davey, was killed in a mine accident. She stayed with an inhospitable cousin in Cardiff for a while, and then moves to London, where she ekes out a living as a prostitute. For a while, she works at a classy brothel where she meets Mr. March, who took her to live in Paris. But she missed London and moved back. Right now, she’s behind in her rent, she’s lost her key, and her boyfriend Joe has moved out.
Beyond the windows of the Ten Bells is the London night, and shadowy figures walking back and forth in the midnight fog. Somewhere out there is the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, who specialized in killing prostitutes in the East End by slitting their throats and mutilating their bodies. Cath, one of Mary Jane’s friends, was his victim and Mary Jane talks Charlie the copper into letting her attend the inquest, where she learns how Cath died by Jack’s knife. The telling is graphic and horrifying.
After an evening of drinking and talking with the unseen pub visitor, Mary Jane puts on her cloak and gloves and goes out into the night. We can only imagine what awaits her on the streets of Whitechapel. Rastorfer, skillfully directed by Kurt Johns, is a convincing Mary Jane, sometimes gay and chatty and sometimes wrenchingly sad and fearful. She portrays, with voice, manner and gesture, all the other characters in her life. The 85-minute play at Theater Wit is a history lesson and a human story.
As director Johns says, “This is one woman’s story of survival, tabloid celebrity, violence, Victorian feminism and friendship…. The play is relevant today because women still struggle against things that should have ended centuries ago.”
Jennifer Thusing’s scenic design presents the Ten Bells Public House, with its old wooden bar, bar stools, and small tables and chairs around the pub. Paul Deziel’s projections provide the shadowy scene of Whitechapel beyond the pub windows, enhanced by Heather Skye Sparling’s lighting. Eric Backus’ sound design and music provide the right aural background for Mary Jane’s mood changes. Mary Jane’s many-layered costume was designed by Alice Broughton.
Mary Jane explains the layers: “Cath often walked around London wearing extra skirts, with pipes, and thimbles, and tins of tea stashed in her pockets. A lot of thieving goes on at the doss houses, see, so as Cath says it pays to have your valuables about you. And that’s a piece of advice I’ve been taking.”
Aoise Stratford has received many nominations and awards for The Unfortunates and other plays, including Somewhere in Between and short plays. She currently teaches playwriting at Cornell University and is working on a new play, The Vampire of the Grotto.
The Unfortunates by SoloChicago Theatre continues through July 10 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday. Buy your $38 tickets here or by calling 773-975-8150.