February 2, 2005

Five Women Crowd the Schwartz

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Following a pre-recorded request to kindly turn off your cell phones and, please, “if you need a cough drop, unwrap it now,” you know even before the opening line that this is going to be a witty show. In fact, that’s the disclaimer director Stephen Cole, a seasoned faculty member of the theater department, gave me as the lights dimmed for the opening scene: “Don’t be afraid to laugh out loud.”

With Alan Ball’s notoriously witty and sardonic dialogue, this wasn’t a problem. The acclaimed writer of American Beauty, HBO’s Six Feet Under and other familiar TV sitcoms like Cybil and Grace Under Fire actually got his start as a playwright. Among his notable theater productions is the smart and spirited Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, a story about five bridesmaids who for various reasons seek refuge from the wedding reception in a bedroom at the Knoxville, Tennessee home of the bride.

A simple enough plot with plenty of potential to be full of shallow shop-talk and gossip, this is actually a sharp commentary in Southern drawl about love, sex, life, society, religion and every other topic in between that might be discussed amongst women in the safety of a girl’s bedroom. Clearly, Ball had writing about emotional turmoil down to a science long before American Beauty came out.

Bridesmaid number one is Frances, played by Becky Wolozin. A vision in an over-the-top dress with too many flounces and flowers (don’t hate it too much because you’ll be seeing a lot of it), she enters the scene innocently poking around the room and trying on someone else’s jewelry. Frances is a cheerful goody-goody who will proudly announce her Christianity whenever tempted by evils like drugs, alcohol or boys, all easily found at the reception going on outside. She is so pure and righteous that you’ll want to shake her and tell her to come out of her shell so she can experience life a little.

Bridesmaid number two is Meredith, played by Sara Clemens, who screams into the picture as the bride’s tormented, must-be-different younger sister. A fresh college graduate with an English degree, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life other than get out of her parents’ house and away from her nagging mother so she can be left alone far from all talk of being a proper young lady in a town full of Southern debutantes.

Then enters bridesmaid number three, Tricia, played by Kirsten Kollender. Tricia is beautiful, despite the dress, and notoriously “well acquainted” with most of the men outside. While she’s not ashamed of her take-charge ways and scores of men, she has yet to find real love and professes that it doesn’t really exist anywhere, even between the couple getting married that day. Her luck will later change, though, with the only male in the cast, Harlan Work, who plays a charming Tripp.

The fourth bridesmaid, Georgeanne, played by Danielle Thorpe, spends much of the time drowning her sorrows in champagne and martinis, reminiscing about her former flame who is flirting with another woman outside, her lack of love with her husband and her failed confidence in her looks. Often at different stages of undress, you know she is destined to make a scene.

The fifth and final bridesmaid Mindy, played by Laura Beth Wells, enters last as the groom’s lesbian sister who likes to take full advantage of the buffet. She spends her time in the room worrying about living her life as a stereotype, obsessing over the fact that the bride doesn’t love her brother and trying to cope with old and new family members who are ashamed of her.

As the story progresses, more and more layers of character are peeled away, revealing torment and guilt about pasts, history of abuse, lack of love, loss of friendships and the sobering realization that they have all gotten older. Bonds are remade and problems are solved that day through all the talk and drama. Although by no means will you leave with the rosy picture that everything turns out perfect once the wedding is over; Ball is more realistic than that. Instead, he simply opens doors for the girls to go out and make some necessary changes in their lives. In the end he asks us all to try and believe in love, to live a little, to seek therapy, to leave old unrequited love behind and to be ourselves.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is a beautifully acted masterpiece with an outstanding set and strong cast that’s not to be missed. The show will play in the Flexible Theater at the Schwartz Center February 2-6 and 9-13. For tickets contact the Schwartz Center Box Office at 254-ARTS.

Archived article by Laura Borden
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer