Note: This article is part of a bigger project honoring strong females, fictional and real, in theatre as part of Women’s History Month.
Musical theatre is filled with extraordinary women who lead extraordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances. But what about the ordinary women? What about the women you see every day at the grocery store or sitting outside on break from their minimum wage jobs? Where is their place on Broadway?
Waitress has brought the story of three exceedingly ordinary women to the theatre scene in a big way. Becky, Dawn, and Jenna are imperfect women. They are flawed and they have baggage, secrets, and lies. Their dreams aren’t anything huge and spectacular; rather, they simply yearn to be content with the lives they lead. All three women are waitresses at a diner in a small southern town, and their friendship is the support system that gets them through the day. Each one of them has her own strengths and her own story and that’s what makes their bond such a special thing for audiences to behold.
Becky is an outspoken, brassy woman who’s never afraid to say exactly what’s on her mind. She doesn’t live according to anyone’s rules but her own. While she is undeniably proud and tough, she also has a soft side, particularly for her coworkers. The gentleness and love she shows toward Jenna and Dawn are what’s at her true center once her sturdy exterior has been stripped away.
When Jenny catches Becky in an affair with the Carl, their boss and chef at Joe’s Pie Dinner, Becky owns up to it (“I Didn’t Plan It”) and tells Jenna that she has no right to judge her as they have both strayed off in their own ways. Becky says that sometimes people find themselves doing something they know is wrong just to get by, and that’s what the affair with Cal is for her: a little bit of a thrill to interrupt the tedium of her reality.
Dawn, in some ways the polar opposite of Becky, is a timid woman who may very well have lived her entire life without taking a single risk if not for Becky and Jenna. When she finds herself filled with trepidation before going on a date with a man she met online (“When He Sees Me”), her fellow waitresses take it upon themselves to nudge her out of her comfort zone.
Through this tender push, Dawn learns that living in a bubble of security is not all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes to find the most precious parts of life, you have to first open yourself up to vulnerability. Fortunately for her, the gamble she takes pays off. She ends up with a sweet (albeit slightly awkward) man who gives her the immense amount of love and adoration she deserves.
Jenna is the middle ground between these two extreme personalities. She is perhaps the most ordinary of the trio. It’s not a stretch to say that everyone in the audience has either known or been a Jenna at some point in their lives. As she reflects on the choices she’s made in the sob-inducing “She Used to Be Mine,” she realizes that somewhere along the way, she settled for a life that she never initially envisioned for herself. Trapped in a loveless marriage and pregnant with the child of her abusive husband, Jenna engages in a reckless affair with her gynecologist to reclaim the affection she’s been denied. She also begins a reticent friendship with Joe, the elderly owner of the diner where she works.
While at first she isn’t pleased about the idea of having a baby, eventually she warms up to it by way of using her unborn child as a confidant for all her secrets. By the time Lulu is born, she is head over heels in love with her baby girl. With the help of a large financial gift from Joe, Jenna summons up the courage to leave her husband and to end the affair with the also-married Dr. Pomatter. Jenna finds all the fulfillment she requires through the love she has for her daughter, for her friends, and for baking pies.
The beauty in a show like Waitress is that audience members are bound to find a piece of themselves in at least one character. Whether it be Becky’s unapologetic impulsiveness, Dawn’s reluctance to expose herself for fear of getting hurt, or Jenna’s struggle to stand up for herself and demand more than she’s been given, everyone is able to relate to these women in some way.
This is a chance for ordinary women (and men) to see themselves portrayed on stage. Perhaps Waitress will give women imprisoned in abusive relationships the bravery to finally escape or maybe seeing this musical is that little jolt someone needs to run that “red light” preventing them from claiming a piece of happiness and excitement.