Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Five Women Wearing The Same Dress
But of course when you see a grown woman thrust into the same rig, you just shake your head sympathetically and think, "Bridesmaid."
In Alan Ball's Five Women Wearing The Same Dress, a woman can still be a princessor a fairy godmother, or a beauty queen, or a few other things too, as it suits her purpose. It's just that everyone else has lost sight of her magic, or shoveled so much dirt on a childhood memory that they've buried the little girl, too. This funny, bittersweet show about five young women trying to be Southern ladies (and all those other things, at least for a wedding and reception) comes to us from 1993, before Mr. Ball's "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood" on HBO, and before his movies, including American Beauty.
The play skews more toward Steel Magnolias than the sometimes misogynistic "Six Feet Under," with ladies in waiting hiding after a wedding, each for her own reasons, and getting trashed in the process. Meanwhile, the gritty side of grown-up life comes through as the story goes on. Sarajane Alverson and Shannon Nara lead the cast, working their own magic. But everyone else proves up to the challenge set by these two excellent performers. The wonderful evenness of acting quality sets our minds at ease, even as the performers themselves begin to churn our hearts.
Gary F. Bell directs with a knowing feel for the immediate post-Reagan era, in music, dress and tone, and gives each actress room to breatheeven though each one ends up struggling against antebellum asphyxiation. More and more is made of the sense of entitlement and arrogance of Southern men, though near the end we finally get a lovely scene in which we learn what one of these specimens really should be like, inside and out (in Kevin O'Brien's noble performance). Whether or not the particular bridesmaid he chats with privately will blow her one last chance at happiness with him is guaranteed to have you holding your breath with worry for a good ten minutes or so.
Despite a steady, reliable string of laughs, the play goes deeper and deeper, till we are on the edge of our seats. Lindsay Gingrich as Meredith gets our heads spinning when she reveals an awful truth late in the action, in an exceedingly quiet manner. And it's not just that it's one of those awful stories women can only tell each anotherit's that Meredith still feels ambivalent about it years later, and about the man who took advantage of her. Our minds are so gradually turned around to see things we'd normally look past, that it's both wretched (her confession) and truly strange (the way she has processed it).
Eileen Engel builds both the costumes for the show and structures a great character arc on stage as Frances, a slightly condescending (but very young) evangelical who ultimately arrives at a freer self near the end. And Frankie Ferrari is quietly spectacular as Mindy, a former beauty queen coldly turned away at one point for being a lesbian.
Each of them is funny, or a healer, or a fierce rebel, or a quiet observer of the human condition by turns. And of course what goes unsaid is how much they all depend on each other when the princess dress they're forced back into is nothing more than a mean joke anymore.
Five Women Wearing The Same Dress, through June 25, 2016, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.