By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Apr 14, 2018 at 7:16 PM

Renaissance Theaterworks’ provocative production of Caryl Churchill’s "Top Girls" greets the audience with a collage of projections of iconic women from the 1980s. As I wait for the play to begin, one familiar photo catches my eye. I don’t need to see the slogan, because I recognize the long flowing hair, the model-perfect body, the designer clothes and the cigarette placed elegantly between this superwoman’s fingers. She’s the Virginia Slims girl and the ad campaign’s caption is, "You’ve come a long way, baby."

And there’s no doubt that’s true. In six decades of the 20th century, women got the vote, ditched corsets, burned their bras, entered colleges and the workforce in droves, took control of their own reproductive health, and broke through glass ceilings that had been in place for centuries. Of course, the Virginia Slims chick, a well-off, wispy size 4 with a killer stylist and a pack-a-day habit, also signified that in spite of these strides, there was a long way to go. And there still is, as feminism struggles in its third wave to define itself and work towards equality for women of many ethnicities, social classes and orientations.

So it seems especially fitting that Renaissance Theatreworks chose this exceptional play to close its landmark 25th season. Examining women’s struggles throughout history, their many advances and the compromises they have made in a persistently male world, "Top Girls" continues to raise questions about the meaning and the price of female success.

The play opens with a fantasy night out for Marlene (the luminous Cassandra Bissell), who has just been promoted to a top job at the Top Girls Employment Agency. Joining her for a celebratory dinner party are real and fictional women known for their accomplishments as explorers and rebels – everyone from a Flemish peasant who plundered hell and a 13th century Japanese concubine-turned-nun, to a Victorian author and adventurer and a woman who served as pope in the 9th century. They are also noteworthy for the sacrifices they made and the pain they endured at the hands of men.

In a mélange of overlapping conversations, the women congratulate Marlene on her success while reflecting on their own disappointments – the loss of children and family, violent punishment for their transgressions and their societal limitations. While Gret (a delightfully base Rachel Zientek) steals bread, wine and silver, Pope Joan (a no-nonsense Mary MacDonald Kerr) spouts religious philosophy, and Lady Nijo (the elegant Karissa Murrell Meyers) laments both the children and the beautiful clothing that were taken from her. The party ends in drunken melancholy as each woman counts the costs of her achievement. It’s an incredibly well choreographed, dizzying din of narratives that all arrive at the same ending.

Back in the real world, Marlene is embroiled in catty office politics and a ridiculous request from her co-worker’s wife that she should refuse her promotion so a man can have the job. Meanwhile the agency’s women in power respond to a parade of female applicants who want work, but in counseling them, the "top girls" only reinforce the inequalities in the male dominated system.

Then Marlene’s teenage niece shows up at her office, having run away from home. And if her work is chaotic, her relationship with her family is worse, as we see in flashbacks. At this point, Churchill guides us from the surreal, to the exploration of stereotypes, to a realistic domestic drama that pits the sisters and their daughter/niece against each other.

In the most interesting part of the play, Marlene’s chic and worldly girl-made-good comes back to Suffolk, the hometown she desperately wanted to escape. Over glasses of whiskey, she and her sister Joyce (a tired and pale Libby Amato) take the gloves off and talk about the choices they’ve made over the course of their lives. They also talk about Angie, the intellectually stunted and under-achieving girl who hates Joyce and is fascinated by Marlene, who turns out to be her real mother. Played with a big heart, child-like wonder and extreme emotions she can’t completely control, Elyse Edelman creates a girl who "isn’t quite right" and certainly isn’t equipped to excel the way Marlene did.

The personal quickly becomes political as the sisters – and the realities of feminism in the 1980s –clash. The opportunities that women have still come at a terrible personal cost, and they are mostly reserved for the privileged and ruthless. As Marlene spews the Reagan/Thatcher ideals of individual success through capitalism, Joyce asks plaintively what choices she has and how she can possibly succeed – rural, undereducated, a recent divorcee who looked after both an unwanted child and their ailing parents. And more important, what chance will Angie have in such a cut-throat world?

Throughout the final "debate," Amato and Bissell simultaneously lob deeply entrenched ideology at one another at high volume. Neither is really listening to the other (painfully reminiscent of our current political climate) and the only result is fear for the future on all counts. It is a jarring end to an unsettling play.

Deftly directed by Suzan Fete and featuring a top notch cast, "Top Girls" ultimately illustrates that women "have come a long way, baby." But we all still have far to go.