Fashion Statement: 5 Women Wearing the Same Dress
Sometimes I think my theater companion is better than Wikipedia.
"The play we're seeing tonight is written by the same guy who wrote American Beauty," she tells me.
Like Johnny to her Ed McMahon, "I did not know that!" comes my response. In fact, I entered the intimate theater which is home to the Mobtown Players this past Friday with no knowledge of what I was about to see. As a critic, I approach my work like Jackie Gleason--no rehearsal. I want to flop into my seat saddled with as few preconceived notions and expectations as possible.
"Five Women Wearing the Same Dress" is indeed by the man who gave us American Beauty, as well as Towelhead, Alan Ball. Ball has created and produced such acclaimed HBO series as "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood." He's got an Emmy, a Golden Globe, even an Academy Award.
So, the guy can write. And his play, "Five Women Wearing the Same Dress" is clearly testament to that fact.
The entire play takes place in a bedroom in a "grand, turn-of-the-century mansion in an old-money suburb of Knoxville, Tennessee" in the early 1990s, according to my program. And it does. There's an oversized poster of Malcolm X on the wall declaring "By Any Means Necessary"--by any means necessary WHAT we do not know, though the words do come to have meaning in the course of the play.
Over a brisk two hours, including a 10-15 minute intermission, we are introduced to the five women who are all wearing the same dress, in this case, bridesmaids in their poofy, cantalopish-coral-pinkish gowns, which they hate. "I look like a lamp or a linebacker," Meredith (Scout Seide) complains. Since there's an unwritten law among women that says the bridesmaids can never look better than the bride, it all stands to reason.
The bride, Tracy, is the one character who never appears on stage, though we are informed that she is "perfect," and why wouldn't she be, since she's wearing "a $6,000 dress," her sister Meredith declares. Plus, she's "marrying a man who adores her," she's rich, the world is at her feet, yet isn't it odd that among all her chosen bridesmaids, there isn't a single one who really likes her?
It's a dichotomy of sorts that distinguishes each character. Tracy is rich, but poor in friendship. Meredith is hip, likes her joints and leather jacket but is miserable in her sister's shadow. Trisha is man-mad but wise; Frances is the holy roller who may roll a new way with help from a little makeup and a glass of champagne; Georgeanne, sweet, but sad; Mindy is the misunderstood lesbian who comes to be understood. As the women converse, we experience a clash of life philosophies, stories of sordid pasts and brighter futures, unspoken truths finally spoken. Ball's clever dialogue gives energy to the limited action on stage, raising the play beyond something more than an episode of "Designing Women"...though admittedly, there are moments that remind me of the popular 1990s TV series.
For example, there's a scene where the women are contemplating why lipstick colors are so often named after foods...apricot passion or cherry divine. "What else are they going to call it? Menstruation red?" one character asserts. The fact that all the women speak with southern accents does occasionally have one flashing back to the antics of the Sugarbaker sisters and their cohorts.
Still, while admittedly "Designing Women" didn't open with introductory comments from Alistair Cooke, it was entertaining (at least in the first couple seasons), and "Five Women" is certainly that, aided by the top flight performances of the cast, including Jeb Beard as Tripp, the sole male in the ensemble, who doesn't appear on stage until late in the second act.
While the sudden appearance of a man might seem out of place in this play that seems primarily about women and their perceptions about themselves, their lovers, friends and family, presenting a male point of view does give the play additional perspective...and raises men above the level of stereotype as they are unfortunately portrayed by the women in the course of their conversations, i.e. as seducers, users, occasional abusers, and not very bright.