Cheerful dystopia a thin veil to reality in Theater Wit’s ‘Salad’

The title of Sheila Callaghan’s ‘Women Laughing Alone With Salad’ may be initially confusing for those not familiar with the stock photo that launched a thousand memes, with the biggest meme of all central to the production now in its Chicago premiere at Theater Wit. Of all the words in the phrase, the most crucial is ‘alone’.

These women, here portrayed by Echaka Agba, Jennifer Engstrom, and Daniella Pereira, all seek the fable that was promised to them – the Modern and Empowered Women, Able to Do It All. The only catch is that she has to do it alone, fueled by a salad bought out of motivations she doesn’t quite understand, but feel second nature. The girl power here is, at best, hollow to the point of being completely corporate. In the rat race to become the Best Woman, no one wins.

Except maybe the salad.

In the world Callaghan and director Devon De Mayo have constructed, salad is more than just vegetables on top of lettuce. The exact meaning behind the salad is never pinned down, but an exact meaning never feels needed. Even so, the first act feels a little slow, bordering on fatigue – even within the world of a demented word reminiscent of an ad for Secret or Playtex.

Callaghan creates a world of contradictions, and de Mayo fully invests in this vision through exploring the possibilities of a world where women can say what’s truly on their minds. This alternate reality within an alternate reality creates a fracture line through much of the first act, with posturing done by both Guy (Japhet Balaban) and Meredith, Sandy, and Tori – the women who would come to haunt him. Neither party operates with complete honesty with each other, instead pantomiming a slightly depressing Saturday Night Live sketch where the humor is present, but the honesty of the situation is just a little too real. Think something out of Betty Draper’s deepest darkest nightmares, and mix it in with this recent SNL sketch.

This precarious balance between laugh-out-loud humor and brutal honesty is difficult to achieve without taking something crucial away from the other, and it speaks to both Callaghan and de Mayo’s talents that it comes across so smoothly. Despite these efforts, ‘Salad’ has difficulty keeping up with the dizzying images shaping it, inadvertently slowing it down to a sometimes confusing, farcical display of pageantry. The saccharine absurdity of a world where a simple salad is the key to leaving feminine troubles behind presents fascinating moral and interpersonal questions, but where does it all lead to? Is the salad really that good?

Well, by Act 2, the salad is not so much good as it is a churning mix of ennui and existentially toxic masculinity served on the side. The attempt to build something new from the remains of a cataclysmic event brought to mind the third act of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns – another Theater Wit hit that ‘Salad’ may follow in the box office footsteps of with an extension to May 12.

‘Salad’ may posture as a darkly humorous romp through the feminine world, but de Mayo draws the most strength from its realistic undertones. In its second act, we are taken back to the genesis of the stock photo that started it all, now as a centerpiece for a corporate oligarchy barely divorced from actual reality. As the act progresses, the new and terrifying realities the men in suits dream up for their female counterparts reveal themselves as a guise for salad, and more broadly, the photos of women laughing alone with salad or pouring water anywhere but into their mouths that punctuate Arnel Sancianco’s set design and Joseph A. Burke’s projection design.

Fleshing out a world that prizes small-batch, grass-fed, cold brew coffee over the imperfections of humanity could make a production get bogged down in vapid melodrama, but Theater Wit’s rises to the occasion of being something quite extraordinary – it honestly acknowledges the near-impossibility of liberation (for women and men) from the societal binds that neither party fully understands. But without first acknowledging that such a gap in understanding exists, the promise of a Fully Formed and Well Adjusted Human cannot be achieved – even with a magic salad.

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