A strikingly modern look at feminism -- in a 1910 drama; He and she A play by Rachel Crothers. Presented by BAM Theater Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In its ongoing search for good but "forgotten" plays, the BAM Theater Company has unearthed a beauty. Rachel Crothers is no longer a name to conjure with, especially among younger playgoers. Yet she was a major force in the American theater between 1905 and 1940, writing nearly 40 plays, and producing and directing many of them herself.

"He and She" came out in 1910. Aside from some archaic slang and a few obscure references, however, it seems astonishingly contemporary. The subject is women's liberation, and equality between the sexes. The perspective is personal and familial, rather than social and political. The approach is thoughtful, emotionally sensitive, and exquisitely balanced. Indeed, comparing it with its current movie equivalent, "Kramer vs. Kramer," I submit that "He and She" is every bit as funny, sad, provocative, and enlightened. It's also a sight more sophisticated in its complex web of family ties, rivalries, and loyalties.

The plot pivots around a well-known sculptor named Tom Herford. For 1910, and even for 1980, he's a liberal fellow when it comes to women's rights. His wife is a sculptor, too, and he revels in her professional success, happily encouraging her to compete with the men in her field, including himself. Men can be frail vessels, though and his pride is jolted when he loses a major comission. The jolt becomes a major shock when the winner of the commission turns out to be none other than Mrs. Herford.

In itself, this situation is rather schematic. But there are subplots all over the place, casting various lights on the story. Tom's young assistant is locked in dubious battle with his fiancee: He wants a wife who will spend the day making beds and preparing hearty suppers, while she refuses to give up her burgeoning career as a journalist.

Meanwhile, Tom's unmarried sister is a secure and self-supporting woman who positively yearns to chuck her job and devote herself to a husband and children. And then there's the Herfords' daughter, a strong-willed teen-ager who has received less than a fair share of attention from her professionally active parents. These characters come to grips with one another in various ways, each reflecting some emotionally complicated facet of the great modern struggle between competing claims of man and woman, career and family, pride and prejudice.

Crothers knew what she was writing about. Her own father was a physician who went bankrupt, whereupon her mother struggled through medical school and saved the family's fortunes by becoming a leading woman doctor. "He and She" resounds with the playwright's understanding of female professionalism.

Yet the men of her tale are never villains. At worst, they are benighted by centuries of cultural habit -- like Mrs. Herford's father, who is shocked that his daughter would dream of taking a commission from her husband, however fairly won. At best, they genuinely want to raise their own consciousnesses, by the bootstraps if need be. Everywhere you look, there are good intentions to be found -- and this actually heightens the moral and dramatic tension of the drama.

As bustingly directed by Emily Mann, the BAM production sparkles from beginning to end. The play is a bit long and repetitious, but the performers race through it with such skill and energy and you'd hardly notice. Gerry Bamman defly combines strength and vulnerability as Tom, while Laurie Kennedy projects a girlish exuberance that in no way detracts from her character's presence as a solid professional. As the unmarried sister, Joan Pape takes a role that could have been written for Marjorie Main, and gives it a touch of Jill Clayburgh instead. The splendid cast in rounded out by Richard Jamieson, Marti Maraden, Cherry Jones, Helen Harrelson, and the inimitably roly-poly Jerome Dempsey.

The BAM "He and She" is a triumph, because all these actors know how to bring out the deep-reaching ambiguity of the play -- an ambiguity that's rooted in the human condition itself. The situation is resolved at the end, but not too neatly. The woman finds herself arguing for motherhood over careerism. This could sound reactionary, except that her equality -- nay, her superiority in some matters -- has been resoundingly established by this time. Similarly, the husband is able to climb back into his comfortable role of bread- winner, but in such a way that his wife's heroic accomplishments become a major factor even in this area.

In sum, Crothers has left nothing out, from professional pride to parental tenderness. She understands her subject from the inside out, and the spirited BAM production shares this fine, instinctual knowledge. It's a funny, intelligent, and frequently moving experience, in the company of characters who could have been created yesterday instead of seven decades ago. Cheers to the BAM for digging out this splendid show.

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