'Five Women Wearing the Same Dress'
Despite the script's weaknesses, this NXNW production stays engaging because all five women are fun to watch
Reviewed by Hannah Kenah, Fri., Feb. 15, 2008
Five Women Wearing the Same Dress
The Hideout Theatre, through Feb. 17
Running time: 2 hrs.
A woman wearing a ridiculous dress and a ridiculous hat walks into a bedroom. She finds a diamond bracelet and places it on her wrist. She hears someone coming and squeezes under the bed. Enter a woman wearing the exact same ridiculous dress and hat. So begins North by Northwest Theatre's Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, which takes place at a wedding in Knoxville, Tenn., in a bedroom where the bridesmaids are hiding from the reception. The five women make an interesting collection. Like a Breakfast Club for Girls From Knoxville, a whole spectrum of categories is represented: the lesbian, the religious nut, the rebel, the slut, and the heartbroken one. And just like in The Breakfast Club, we learn that they cannot be so easily defined. "Dear Mr. Vernon: What we found out is that each one of us is a brain. And an athlete." And so on.
The script, by Alan Ball of Six Feet Under fame, wades into a realm of topics that feel timeless yet dated, important yet tired. It is two hours of girl talk written by a male playwright, with few new thoughts expressed on women's relationships to love, to men, to marriage, and to beauty. When two of the women start having a heart-to-heart about the fear of AIDS, you feel the fact that this play was written in 1993. It's not that the issue is no longer relevant; it's just that it is no longer revelatory.
Unseen characters play an important role in this show. Writers always have fun with the limitlessness of characters that never have to be realized in flesh onstage. Ball is no exception. There is Georgeanne's husband, who pours beer on her head. There is Tommy Valentine, dreamboat and monster rolled into one. 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.
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 second act, when the play touches on sexual abuse. The bride's younger sister reveals that she had a relationship with Valentine when she was very young. Shocked and disgusted, one of the women wonders, "What is going through a man's head when he is fucking his fiancée's 12-year-old sister?" A stomach-wrenching question, and the play has trouble recovering its lightheartedness after that.
Men take some hard hits here. To make up for it, Ball inserts one male character toward the end of the play: a young man named Tripp, who 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." It's a tough role, and Keith Yawn's performance is not strong enough to overcome its obvious functionality.
Despite the script's weaknesses, NXNW's production remains engaging because of the quality of the acting. All five of the Five Women are fun to watch and well-suited to their roles. Particularly strong are Nikki Zook's Trisha, Julianna Elizabeth Wright's Georgeanne, and Aleta Garcia's Mindy. Zook carries the powerful quality of being unhurried onstage. Her character has seen a lot and knows she will see more. Wright 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. Garcia 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.
Ball knows how to write a beginning and an ending. The play starts with a woman crawling under a bed. It ends with a perfect Polaroid snapshot. It is clearly the final moment, and that is a rare treat. The audience knows it is time to clap for the well-performed show. Director Karen Jambon paces the show well. The physical comedy is made extra entertaining by the ridiculous gowns – lilac-colored, fake-flower-ridden, sash-bearing, big-hatted monstrosities. Jambon perfectly sums up the experience in her director's notes: "May we all find the beauty in each other that lies beyond the ugly dress."