Left to right: Pamela Formica, Esse Luna and Emer Pond Feeney
Last weekend, Emer Pond Feeney stepped onstage at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts in Burlington for the opening night of her play The Other Middle Ages. When the stage lights came up, she was Patty Kelly, a middle-aged scholar confronting her past. Clad in a black turtleneck, Patty speaks with an air of dejection and doesn't seem very happy.
Feeney doesn't just play Patty; she created the role. The Other Middle Ages is her second play to be produced. Like her first one, Women's Fictions: A One-Act Play, it was produced by Small Potatoes Theater, a minuscule outfit consisting of Feeney and her longtime friend and fellow thespian Pamela Formica.
The show's title is a punny dig at its content. Former friends and grad students Patty Kelly and Elise Ainsworth (Formica) reunite almost a decade out of school to sort through their late professor's research in a small French town. There's a potential mystery involving the 14th-century tapestries of "The Lady and the Unicorn," and a hefty dose of midlife reckoning. Not to mention a mysterious Polish girl — played by Feeney's daughter, Esse Luna — who provides comic and emotional relief in what could otherwise have been a dry investigation.
Some elements are autobiographical. Like the fictional Patty and Elise with their professor, Feeney developed a close relationship with her real-life adviser at the University of Vermont, Laurel Broughton, who taught medieval literature.
And the playwright's worldview is evident throughout the show. "I'm writing from where I'm at, which is at the beginning of the 'middle ages' of my life," Feeney says in an interview. "I see a shift away from the petty concerns of love affairs and relationships to the work of what I'm doing — creativity."
The conflict of the play hinges on a philosophy that Formica — a mental health counselor — has imparted to Feeney repeatedly during their friendship. "[She] has told me that life asks you a question every seven years, in some way or another," Feeney explains. "You can either answer bravely or be a chickenshit."
The Other Middle Ages explores "this idea that these people didn't answer the question bravely," she adds.
Set seven or so years after Patty and Elise left grad school, having failed to answer that "question," The Other Middle Ages gives them a chance to confront the less-attractive aspects of their lives. Patty grapples with the traumas that caused her to give up a possible career as a professor for a managerial position at Barnes & Noble in her small Ohio hometown. Elise is finally forced to acknowledge the privilege that her wealthy upbringing has afforded her, and how her bias against poverty has made her come off as clueless and sheltered.
More than anything, The Other Middle Ages celebrates a nontraditional narrative of the overlooked woman stepping into the spotlight. Not as a jaded mistress or forlorn housewife, but as a fully rounded character with no need for sexual distractions.
"The man-woman story gets a lot of energy," Feeney says, "so [I think,] What are other stories we can tell outside of that mainstream narrative? There are so many other tales to tell about being alive."
Her play is essentially about women coming into their own, on their own terms. "The biggest inspiration for me," the playwright says, "is the women in my life, and the way women support, compete, struggle with and try to connect to each other."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Women Live Through The Other Middle Ages in New Play"