Money floats down on a woman with both arms upstretched to the sky and gazing upward with a beatific smile. Behind her is a repeating pattern of $100 bills.
It’s raining money on Angela (Sierra Marcks) as her promises of the Empowerment Sessions all seem to be coming true…for her. Credit: Robbie Sweeny

Central Works’ 2023 season theme is “Conspiracies, Cons, and Computers with a Conscience.” And talented playwright Lauren Smerkanich’s captivating new drama, The Dignity Circle, fits right into the theme. But only if you dig beneath the surface and do some elementary math.

If, instead, you fell for leader Angela’s enticing spiel, “What would you do if I handed you $40,000?” you might well have attended the women’s “Empowerment Session” and become part of the “Dignity Circle.” What woman wouldn’t want to join a group of supportive women to find friendship, independence, recognition, praise, and, yes, dignity — not to mention Champagne and cash?

In a chance supermarket encounter, the glib, assertive yet seemingly friendly and approachable Angela (excellent work by Sierra Marcks) meets the timid, insecure, vulnerable Judith (outstanding Rebecca Pingree). And then Angela seduces Judith into joining the Dignity Circle. All Judith must do is “gift” some money to Angela and then seek out new members who will then “gift” money to Judith. No last names are used, so who is to know, and who is hurt?

Angela, who runs the meetings, frequently employs stories about her mother to make whatever point she needs to illustrate. Her mother was cold. No, her mother was perfect. But her brilliant mother was subservient to her aggressive male bosses. It’s a wonder that she can keep track of all the stories.

In and out of the meetings, the women share their realistic minor grievances and major tragedies — ranging from Katie C.’s petty office-mate complaints (Heather Kellogg Baumann) to single mother Heather’s poignant description of her hard life with her sick child (Kimberly Ridgeway). Through the women’s group, Judith blossoms with self-assurance and contemplates leaving her controlling and cruel husband, Scott (Adam Roy).

But just when the Dignity Circle seems about to help Judith find the confidence and the cash her life was missing, the whole Ponzi scheme is discovered. But the drama doesn’t end there. In an enlightening epilogue of sorts, we have the opportunity to learn about the next chapters in the lives of the major characters.

With a small but excellent cast, few props, and no scenery to work with, director Gary Graves makes this creative and engrossing drama come alive. Central Works’ 71st world premiere production of The Dignity Circle presents a fascinating view of women whose need for a loving community is so great that they are willing to pay for it.

Playwright Lauren Smerkanich wrote, “I learned about gifting circles a few years ago and was immediately fascinated by the people who both perpetuate and fall for, these cons. In The Dignity Circle, I’m interested in exploring the human desire to find an accepting community that offers the immediate rewards of recognition and praise (and, in this case, cash). I’m exploring how corruptible the allure of power can be, and how badly we can hurt one another, even if we start with the best of intentions.”

What I love about Central Works is that it only produces world premieres. It presents fresh new works by outstanding playwrights. Every show is a surprise — original and first seen here in Berkeley, not a re-run that played in New York several years ago.

The Dignity Circle runs through July 23, Thursday-Sunday, at the Berkeley City Club — that magnificent Julia Morgan-designed building at 2315 Durant Ave. The Dignity Circle has one act and lasts 90 minutes without an intermission. Masks must be worn at all times in the theater.

The theater only seats about 50 people, so get your tickets early. Fridays through Saturday, advance tickets are $35-$40, and all remaining tickets are available on a sliding scale at noon on the day of the show, $15-$40. Pay what you can on Thursdays. For information, extended dates, and tickets, call 510.558.1381 or visit the Central Works website.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...