"... walks the line between boisterous comedy and tragedy."
Playing October 26-28th at the Golden West College Stage West Theater, “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” opened to a standing-room-only crowd Friday evening, presenting a comedy with an edgy, sometimes knife-like acuity, but surprising audiences with a legitimately entertaining, incisive exploration into female friendships. Today’s matinee performance at 2pm marks the final performance.
Written by Oscar and Emmy-winning screenwriter Alan Ball (“American Beauty,” “Six Feet Under”), “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress,” which takes place at a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee, veers back and forth from playful to heartbreaking, providing rich material for the small, almost exclusively female cast. Think of the movie, “Bridesmaids,” without the trip. Ball pairs witty banter and physical comedy with the emotional traumas of sexual abuse, failing marriages, bigotry and family dysfunction. The result is a production with a clever, sagacious script, and truly strong performances that walk the line between boisterous comedy and tragedy, using humor as a mode for cathartic expression.
The play’s title references the five bridesmaids of a wealthy, beautiful Southern debutante named Tracy, who the play centers on but never appears onstage. While at first the bridesmaids appear to have little in common, they gradually bond over their shared dislike for Tracy and a desire to avoid the ostentatious reception.
The play takes place in the childhood bedroom of Tracy’s rebellious, pot-smoking younger sister Meredith (Lydia McDonald), who is very sarcastic and much annoyed with the whole fiasco downstairs. A misfit in the high society of her family, she sports an outwardly tough attitude, and even keeps a poster of Malcolm X on the wall of her bedroom, but has a lot of insecurity to hide. Meredith frequently leaves to fulfill various nuptial duties, and her bedroom acts as an axis around which the events of the play unfold, providing shelter for the other bridesmaids who need an escape from the party.
Although they come from similar backgrounds, they have clashing personalities, and there is one of each kind, from virginal to maneater. All have a general disdain for the bride and a romantic history with the unscrupulous Tommy Valentine. Eventually that scoundrel becomes the cause for a late-awakening dramatic conflict. But he also remains offstage, while we listen to the quintet of carpers and complainers as the women bond over weed and alcohol.
The actresses are variously appealing and they all manage to retain their flair even when dialogue seems interchangeable. All five are fun to watch and well-suited to their roles. Particularly strong are Nicole Xavier’s Trisha, Sarah Elaine Ellsworth’s Georgeanne, and Kayla Wiggs’ Mindy. Ms. Xavier, with the looks and assertiveness of a young Jane Fonda, carries the powerful quality of being unhurried onstage. Her character has seen a lot and knows she will see more. Ms. Ellsworth is a woman trapped in a life she doesn't want, but from the midst of her sorrow, she is able to dream of a better future. Ms. Wiggs plays the groom's lesbian sister and does a terrific job of balancing the light and dark material. Her character provides much of the comic relief but also the most potent social commentary.
The one-liners and comebacks are fast and furious and Mr. Ball seems to have spent a great deal of time eavesdropping on female gossip. Most of the hostility is aimed against men. When the absurdly naive Frances, cousin of the bride, has a flirtation with an offstage bartender, the other women immediately suggest that he is a wife murderer, and he becomes the object of a series of serial killer jokes. The pert Ms. Bolden, who reminds us that she's Christian upwards of 20 times, expertly plays the role of shocked dormouse, and provides the balance of personalities in the script.
Unseen characters also play an important role in this show. There is Georgeanne's husband, who sometimes pours beer on her head. There is the aforementioned Tommy Valentine, dreamboat and louse rolled into one. Rubbing in the hurt even further, Tommy V is now making a fresh conquest at the wedding as Georgeanne nurses a bottle and stews upstairs with a bird's-eye view.
And there is Tracy the bride, who looms largest of all. She is the reason that these five women are wearing the same dress, and she is envied and loathed by all. She tells her sister: "The hat isn't optional. It's part of the uniform." It takes a special kind of woman to describe her bridesmaids' dresses as uniforms. Tracy has no real friends, and her bridesmaids spend much time wondering why they were selected for this duty.
As Director, Luke Yankee has treated the play with the giddiness it deserves. Tears dry quickly and a brief flare of temperament is immediately followed by a reconciliation and a makeup makeover for the injured party. In this cheerful world, all wounds are skin deep.
The play shifts mercurially from comedy to tragedy and back. One minute, the characters are discussing a secret abortion or a broken marriage, and the next, they're yucking it up over make-up and joints. This back and forth is palatable until the middle of the second act, when the play touches on sexual abuse. The bride's younger sister, Meredith, in a stomach-wrenching scene, reveals that she had a “thing” with Valentine when she was twelve, after which the play has trouble recovering its lightheartedness.
The primary theme of the play seems to be, which of the men in their lives is "the biggest piece of wet toast." Exempt from that title is the one male character seen on stage, Tripp, played by Erik Scott. Mr. Scott brings a needed spark to the second act and also a hint of a happy ending for one of the women.
Men take some hard hits here. To make up for it, Tripp has struck up a flirtation with Trisha, the weariest and wisest of the five women. She no longer believes in love, mostly because she no longer believes in men. Tripp is written to redeem his sex. He wants a woman who is "one step ahead" and not "one step behind." Mr. Scott delivers the right blend of winsome nonchalance and predatory determination to make it clear why Tripp has come. And it doesn't seem at all forced when the women clear the room so he can make his play for Tricia.
One thing Alan Ball does knows how to do well is start and end a play. It starts with a woman crawling under a bed, and ends with a perfect Polaroid snapshot, with the cast turning in universally strong performances throughout the two acts. I would highly recommend this show for strong, entertainment value and send congratulations to the director, Mr. Yankee, as well as the players and crew. The costumes are designed by Madison Holst; Lighting is by Chloe Harrison and Tim Mueller; Scenic Design is also by Tim Mueller. And Stage Manager is Tyler Logan.
There is one performance left for this show, which begins Sunday at 2pm today. Tickets may be purchased at the box office.
National Youth Arts