“Bull in a China Shop illuminates the history of real-life academics and lovers Mary Woolley (Kelli Simpkins) and Jeanette Marks (Emjoy Gavino) at an accelerated, yet thoroughly engaging pace. At the turn of the 20th Century and beyond, Woolley the professor and Marks the student go through a series of career and geographical changes, while passionately endeavoring to create a freer and more representative place for women in global society. Tactics and ideology morph in response to current events and individual circumstances, but Wooley and Marks never sacrifice their devotion to one another. The play is a touching, 40-year love story featuring two brilliant academic, feminist minds. A true tonic for the wounds inflicted by toxic male masculinity narratives.
Yet Wooley and Marks are not one-dimensional saints of suffrage. They are complicated and ambitious. They make compromises that are called into public and private question. They are fully and richly human. The tall, stately Simpkins and the diminutive, but powerful Gavino have a gorgeous onstage rapport that communicates the surprising steadfastness of a relationship that began when Marks was but an idolizing teenager.”
“It also must be said that Annie and Curtis are pretty terrible people. Whether this is intentional or not, Thomas can’t resist writing the friends into broad generational stereotype. Annie is not quite the independent and woke lesbian to which her twentysomething self-aspires. An aversion to information and the truth about her idealized grandparents (a mystery that propels the script) smacks of petulant, subjective privilege. Annie lives rent-free in the family homestead and repays the boon with hypocrisy. At least initially, she pretends to historical contribution by neutering the stories of loved ones – as an act of warped self-preservation. It is unappealing.
Curtis pursues career ambition through dishonest, obsessive and mercenary behavior that makes his network of friends uncomfortable. And the character can afford this “problematic” (one of Curtis’ favorite words) approach, without a steady income, because of another type of privilege he’s young enough to take for granted—marriage equality. Curtis’ never-seen husband underwrites his amateur, and ultimately fruitless quest to mine Annie’s past for personal gain.
It’s a good thing then that, in a neat trick of narrative creativity, Annie and Curtis’ stories are not the point. They are mere cyphers for taking a fresh look at the complicated and colorful tapestry of living Baby Boomer gay in post-World War II America. And though Scrantom and Hall turn in serviceable performances, they and their characters ultimately take a backseat to the fine work done by Esteban Andres Cruz and Riley Mondragon in multiple, poignant roles.”