Front Row Reviews

“The Dignity Circle” Questions Identity & Power

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“The Dignity Circle” engages us from the first words spoken: “What would you do with 40,000 dollars?” Although not a massive amount of money these days, it is very enticing when your bank account nears zero and you depend on a spouse to keep you.

Self-effacing Judith (versatile Rebecca Pingree) cannot decide what dessert to choose for a party. Her kind ex-real estate agent, powerful Angela (dynamic Sierra Marcks) spots her and assists with the decision.

Angela touches Judith’s lack of self-confidence, and introduces Judith to the Dignity Circle, where women can reclaim their self-worth and dignity. She must, however, bring in another member, donate to the cause of empowering women, and attend anger-releasing therapy-like sessions.

The women in the group draw us in with their probing questions. One of those questions hit home. “Bring me your truth” is followed by “What is it you most want?” Cocky Katie C (fast talking Heather Kellogg Baumann) expresses anger that rises from her fear of loneliness.

Addressing the audience and her fellow members, she curses and condemns, often in a humorous way. Yet she desperately needs the acceptance and recognition.

“The Dignity Circle” is one the most captivating shows I have seen in quite a while. Smerkenich’s play slowly peels away women’s despair to expose the depth of their loneliness.

White masks hang from the ceiling, and white, blue, and bronze masks hang from hooks, both raising our curiosity. Angela explains to Judith that the masks represent the stages a woman must go through to attain self-worth and the 40,000-dollar reward. Judith aspires to bring in a new member, work for Angela, and be crowned “Queen.” Forty Thousand dollars will appear in her bank account.

But Angela’s money is running out, and new members are not joining.

In the background, Judith’s abusive husband Parker (impressive Adam Roy) and Angela’s complacent husband Scott (engaging Dov Hassan) portray stereotypical, stoic males. As Parker, Roy keenly represents Judith’s abusive husband, who mingles love and pain. And Hassan’s Scott depends on Angela’s strength and judgement, admitting, “You cast a spell on me.”

Director Gary Graves ensures that the characters maintain constant eye contact with the audience, keeping us focused on the action. The characters move in the intimate space with ease, often switching places, and sitting with the audience. Graves and Sound Designer Gregory Scharpen coordinate orchestral and piano music, creating a new atmosphere for different scenes.

Enter overwrought Heather (magnetic Kimberly Ridgeway). With her daughter fighting leukemia, and a full-time job, Heather is exhausted and needs help.  Forthright Judith introduces her to the Circle. Keeping her Queen’s crown and money depend on Heather’s staying in the group. But Heather has questions that could unravel the Dignity Circle.

Each actor, especially Marcks and Pingree, embodies a recognizable, distinct point of view. The explosive interaction between Angela and Judith astounds, leading to a cunning surprise.

In our country, we are constantly besieged by insidious schemes that prey on emotionally weak people. These Ponzi schemes “work”—until people no longer join and donations dry up.

“The Dignity Circle” is a refreshing look at a topic rarely explored, a topic of great psychological and economic consequence. I highly recommend it.

“The Dignity Circle” by Lauren Smerkanich, directed by Gary Graves, at Central Works Theatre, Berkeley, California.  Info: – to July 23, 2023.

Cast: Heather Kellogg Baumann, Dov Hassan, Sierra Marcks, Rebecca Pingree, Kimberly Ridgeway, and Adam Roy.

Photo: Robbie Sweeny