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THEATER REVIEW I Know My Own Heart
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-01-22

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Playwright: Emma Donoghue

At: Pride Films & Plays, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets: 866-811-4111; pridefilmsandplays.com; $25-$30. Runs through: Feb. 10

The life of wealthy English property owner, industrialist, inveterate traveler, mountain climber and lesbian Anne Lister ( 1791-1840 ) is well-documented in her own voluminous diary ( some four million words ), in various scholarly studies, via several BBC television films and an upcoming ( this year ) BBC-HBO series.

TV treatments of Lister's life are far more expansive, lavish and comprehensive than this four-character 1993 chamber play, yet I Know My Own Heart is effective perhaps because of the limits of its focus. This USA premiere also benefits from an intimate and intense production in Pride Films & Plays' smaller theater, directed with care and feeling by Elizabeth Swanson.

The play spans about 10 years in Lister's adult life—perhaps mid-1820s to mid-1830s—detailing her emotional and physical relationships with several women ( fictionalized in the play ) as she fully embraced who and what she was. Lister eagerly fulfilled the male role as lord of her sizeable manor and openly was called "Gentleman Jack" for her man-ish behavior. She came to understand that there were many, many women like herself and refused to accept her inclinations and behavior as unnatural or sinful, despite Christian teachings. For these reasons, contemporary analysts have called Lister the first modern lesbian.

In fact, Lister was remarkably precocious, entering her first relationship with her boarding school roommate sometime before they were 15. Given the sexual repression of the pre-Victorian era—little or no understanding of female orgasm, absence of sex education, couples married for decades who never saw each other fully unclothed—it's doubtful that all of Lister's many sex partners were lesbian. It probably was the first sexual experience of any kind for many of her adolescent/young adult partners, at a time of life when everything feels good ( ! ) and experimentation is widespread. For Lister, however, precocity led to conviction and self-awareness as she grew to understand herself intellectually and accept herself emotionally.

Dark-haired Vahishta Vafadari is a convincing Lister, cagey, passionate, aggressive and confident, yet still with moments when she wears her heart on her sleeve. Lauren Grace Thompson is Lister's blonde long-time lover, Marianne, whose marriage serves as both litmus test and catalyst of Lister's personal growth. It's a devoted yet fraught relationship and Thompson plays Marianne's nuances well. Eleanor Katz provides an appealing Earth Mother element and humor as Tib, Lister's older friend, companion and sometimes-squeeze. Finally, tall and statuesque Jessie Ellingsen looks great as Marianne's sister. She, too, has moments of flirtation with Lister although it's not precisely clear why as her role is the least well-defined in the play. Sarah Scanlon's intimacy choreography makes the sexual moments effectively explicit but not graphic, leaving some things to the imagination under those layers of clothing.


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