History often leaves a lot of details out. Whether written by the "winners" or with inherent bias, it often takes us years or even centuries to learn the complexity of a historical event, figure, or background of a marginalized group. Emma Donoghue provides us with some answers to fill in those gaps in her first play written in 1993, I Know My Own Heart. Donoghue, most well-known for her book Room (and the 2015 film), embarks on an U.S premiere with this stunning work.
In an intimate, captivating staging directed by Elizabeth Swanson, I Know My Own Heart centers on one Ms. Anne Lister, a quick-witted Yorkshire lady in 19th century England. Taken from Ms. Lister's actual diary entries, Donoghue extracts details of her life, drawing from a secret code she had invented to disguise her affairs with numerous women. The result is a play that although set in a distant time is as modern and refreshing as the women we encounter in our everyday lives: motivated, confident, and searching for ways to live within oppression without losing their sense of self.
To live up to the reputation of someone as intriguing as Ms. Lister is no easy task and neither is the added pressure of having an entire play revolve around you. From her first lines, Vahishta Vafadari as Anne is at home within this world, delivering her gravitas and alluring charm as effortless as she slips on her fur cloak and lush hat. If you don't leave the show with falling even a little bit in love with her, you may want to consider if you have a heart at all.
The play sets up all the makings of a tragic lesbian romance. High and mighty aristocratic Anne becomes enamored with a farmer's daughter, Marianne (Lauren Grace Thompson). Their chemistry offers a beautiful friendship with a burning desire to explore each others' capacity for love on a deeper level. Their romance blossoms and wilts as they continuously come against the strict limitations of family obligation, societal gossip, and gender expectations to be demure, marry a wealthy man, and produce a male heir to carry on their name.
Initially providing an outsider perspective (before becoming more enveloped in the action in Act II) are Anne's dearest friend, Tib (Eleanor Katz), and Marianne's younger sister, Nancy (Jessie Ellingsen). Tib draws from her past experience with a woman whom she loved to encourage Anne to follow her heart. Nancy becomes intrigued by Anne and Tib, doing her best to impress them in hopes of striking up a new kinship. The introduction of these characters demonstrates what Donoghue manages to do so well; showcasing four complicated women who are each struggling with their autonomy. In a world where the only view on success is to socially advance by means of wealth and on the arm of a male companion, they each approach this path differently---sometimes diverting from it entirely.
What truly captivated me the most was Anne exemplified as every womanizing, self-adoring, wealthy bachelor we've seen in books, films, television shows, and plays. She has the feigned humbleness of Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain, the rebellious nature of Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, and the dickish, but swaggering charm of Marlon Brando as Sky in Guys and Dolls. All of these examples and countless more emulate this male archetype of someone who is irresistible to women, but at their core are just a not so clever, attractive asshole. When the curtain drops, that happy ending is a remarkable woman settling for a man she will be forever trying to change.
While Donoghue initially sets Anne up to be like this, she flips the script entirely through monologues of Anne reconciling with her desires. She actively searches for why she harbors resentment towards Marianne and Tib when she has wronged them. Anne claims to know what she wants and expresses it vehemently in her language, but her actions say otherwise. She fears she will end up just as everyone says, an old maid in a large house, alone. Even to vocalize those worries aloud voices the possibility that she will never find her way.
Anne doesn't gaslight or dismiss the women in her life as nothing. In fact, it's quite the opposite. She has a genuine love for both Marianne and Tib in different ways, and she attempts to protect these relationships which sets her apart from her male counterparts. While at times manipulative, possessive, and angry, Anne deeply cares, even if she wishes she didn't.
I Know My Own Heart is an exploration of four different women who help one another become the women they want to be. I was quickly smitten with this ensemble and Donoghue's delightfully humorous and earnest text provides a joyous resolution for such a celebratory play.