Perhaps best known as the writer behind 2015’s Room, the film that won Brie Larson a Best Actress Oscar, Emma Donoghue has been producing plays, short stories, novels and more for more than 20 years. Written in 1993 and first published in 2001, I Know My Own Heart is a fictionalized treatment of a very real woman, Anne Lister. A woman of wealth and property in early 19th century England, Lister is best known for the diaries she kept (often in code) and the details within of her adventures, business dealings and relationships with other women. In the play, now enjoying its U.S. premiere at Pride Films and Plays in Uptown, Lister’s life—and her unflappable ability to live her truth (as we’d say today)—becomes a means to examining bigger themes of independence, gender equality, class, friendship and more.
Staged in a small bisected space where a few rows of seats line either side of the performance area, the chamber drama (directed by Elizabeth Swanson) vacillates between Anne Lister (Vahishta Vafadari) delivering brief monologues to it’s not exactly clear who, and interactions with three women of note in her life: long-time friend Tib (Eleanor Katz, long-time love Marianne (Lauren Grace Thompson), and Marianne’s sister Nancy (Jessie Ellingsen). That the entire drama (just under two hours with a single intermission), fully formed and quite thick with plot points, needs only four actresses and a simple set to unfold is something to be appreciated. Though some of the period wear is ill-fitting and the bed of the second act isn’t much more than a dorm room mattress on the floor, these imperfections are minor when the headline is that a storefront company like PFP should be commended for tackling a script as significant as Donoghue’s.
We meet Anne at her writing desk, where she clearly feels most at home, writing in a diary or responding to letters or translating some foreign work. Soon we’re introduced to Marianne, a pretty young neighbor on whom Anne has developed a bit of a crush, despite her being a poor farm girl well below Anne’s station. Dear friend Tib is there to keep Anne in check as she pursues Marianne, recounting her own love affair with another woman and the challenges therein. But Anne has her mind made up, and soon the two are exchanging words of admiration and sneaking away to be together whenever they can. When the prospect of Marianne’s marriage comes up, Anne offers that it could be the perfect way to maintain their connection—surely a married woman wouldn’t be questioned about time spent in the company of her female friends.
I Know My Own Heart finds its best moments in facing the hurdles placed in front of these women, with more than a few poignant lines of dialogue woven into an otherwise dense narrative. “It takes considerable strength to defy the world,” asserts Tib at one point, and reminding us in a single line just how much the world hasn’t changed since Anne Lister’s time. Katz, in her self-assured posture and no-nonsense delivery, stands out in the small cast even as Vafadari withers in the lead role. Nowhere in her performance do we see the masculine affect or confidence that’s often referenced in the play, her mannerisms instead uncertain and indecisive. The women certainly try their best to give the work its due (even in poor Yorkshire accents that too often sound…Southern?), and it’s a worthy work that demands much of the women who take it on.
To that end, and thinking of Donoghue’s previous success in adapting her work for the screen, it only makes sense to imagine the play as a lush independent period piece, the likes of Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan and yes, even Brie Larson, filling out the cast and giving Anne Lister’s story as a pioneer among women the treatment it deserves. Until then, the production at Pride Films and Plays will suffice.
I Know My Own Heart runs through February 10 at the Buena, Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets run $20-$30 and are available, along with a full performance schedule, here.
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