Often, it’s near-impossible to believe that American women won the right to vote less than 100 years ago. When reminded, many think of the fight for enfranchisement as a relatively benign process: men were puffed up on their own importance and, although it took some time, women taught them a lesson without too much strife. But Take What Is Yours, a new play at 59E59 Theaters, handily dispels that myth, revealing the remarkable brutality shown to the suffragettes who lead the movement for equality.

The play, composed by Jill A. Samuels and Erica Fae, contains no original dialogue. Instead, it reformulates the letters of movement leader Alice Paul, publications from The National Women’s Party, and various other documents from the time period, weaving them into a fictionalized version of Alice’s very real imprisonment for “obstructing the sidewalk” while protesting in front of the White House, and her subsequent hunger strike while in solitary confinement. The script depicts a series of her encounters with a never-named man, who appears to be a doctor or evaluator of some sort, and shows the increasingly abject conditions through which she suffered as she strove, successfully, to change the law for the better.

While researching women’s suffrage more broadly, Samuels and Fae came across Alice’s story. Shocked that they didn’t know more about her, even though she played an immensely important role in the fight for the vote, they decided to focus their play on her life. After co-founding the production company Anecdota, for which Take What Is Yours serves as the inaugural project, their journey and exploration into Alice’s life on stage began. Samuels directs, while Fae stars as Alice, although to use the word “stars” feels like understating her character. It’s more that Fae subsumes the show. Other characters occasionally populate the stage to whisper encouragement or shout abuse, and the aforementioned man, played by August: Osage County’s Wayne Maugans, serves as an unobtrusive scene partner. Yet Take What Is Yours wholeheartedly belongs to Alice, and Fae commits fully to her performance, baring both her body, as Alice is forced by the prison doctors to strip down, and her soul, as she tries to maintain her sanity when so many are hell-bent on taking it away from her. Fae throws herself into the sadness, the shaking, and the halting speech patterns of a woman slowly starving, but there’s a problem in focusing so strongly on Alice’s mistreatment. The audience loses the sense of Alice the warrior and sees her mainly as Alice the victim. This woman who inspired legions spends the majority of the play cowering. One cannot help but be impressed by Alice’s fortitude and her unwavering commitment to a difficult cause, yet how much more chilling would her debasement become if she were ever shown raising some hell.

As is, the horrors melt into one another — an episode where she describes the unwashed sheets upon which she sleeps mingles too seamlessly with an account of the blood-streaked feeding tube that is regularly and painfully, stuffed down her throat. Fae and the play both gain strength in the moments when Alice unleashes at least some of her fire. At one point, she turns the tables on The Man, who is relentlessly trying to get her to break the hunger strike. He holds a forkful of food out to her and she takes it in her hand, but then boldly, with total control, pops it into his mouth. At another, when The Man enumerates the difficulties in treating political prisoners differently from others, saying, “It would be easier just to give you girls the vote,” Fae cracks a smile as Alice wryly replies, “Well that would certainly be alright too.” In these moments, Fae’s composure and wit move Alice from a martyr to a fighter, and that’s much more interesting to watch.

The audience plunges into Alice’s suffering with her, thanks in part to a production design (conceived by the ever-industrious Samuels) that induces a heightened sense of claustrophobia. A series of stone-like, moving panels comprise the set. They glide in and out of the background to let the audience view the events happening behind the actors. At times, when just the middle row of panels relocates, the production attains a widescreen, cinematic aesthetic. The set pieces slide around as if on rollers, so that when Alice perches on her meager prison bed and talks to The Man sitting in a chair, the actors move constantly through space even though their feet don’t touch the ground. The effect, like a swooping camera, keeps the audience engaged and off-balance, and the sound design by Kristin Worrall contributes to this unease. Constant tones and buzzing, like prison lights being turned up too high, accompany the action. Every so often, the background noise erupts into what sounds like the Law and Order scene change music, shocking audience members out of whatever complacency they may have fallen into. Mostly, these production elements serve their purpose beautifully. Sometimes, however, they prove distracting — the set pieces jerk all too frequently, and it becomes clear that, rather than a moving track doing the work, some hardworking stagehand is scuttling around beneath the scenes, yanking the bed around.

In an age where women’s reproductive rights weather constant attacks, when marriage equality makes slow (but steady) progress, and where Occupy protestors endure police brutality sometimes similar to that faced by suffragettes in the early 20th century, Take What Is Yours resonates with a timely force. Despite a tendency to fall into victimhood, it manages to raise a fighting spirit. By peeling back the cover on a chapter of American history that most people would rather forget, and taking an unflinching look at the contents written there, Samuels and Fae both honor the heroes of the past and provide a warning for the future. Perhaps the most effective thing they do throughout the entire play is to let the words of the times speak for themselves. At one point, midway through, they project on the set walls the reasons brought forward in the House of Representatives for denying women the vote. Idiotic statements like, “The ballot would degrade women” and “No man would care to marry a female policeman” scroll through, and the audience sits in shock that such logic was ever considered legitimate. Years from now, people may feel the same way at the vitriol spewed in the civil rights fights happening today.

“Take What Is Yours” will run through May 27th in New York City at 59E59 Theatres located at 59 East 59th Street, NY, NY 10022. For more information visit: http://59e59.org.

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