Five women wear the same dress well
In the program for Theatre on the Ridge’s current production, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, the director (and president of the theater), Judy Clemens, points out that author Alan Ball “has provided us with a strong vehicle for actresses (a rarity in the male-dominated theater world).”
Clemens’ cast met these choice roles with what turned out to be a committed, energetic fulfillment of the script’s promise.
Alan Ball the playwright has of course moved on to being the screenwriter (American Beauty, winner of the 2000 Oscar for Best Screenplay and Best Picture) and the TV series creator (the Emmy-award winning Six Feet Under on HBO), and this early play shows the kind of flawed human characters—singing what lies beneath their surfaces to the tune of dark humor—whom he’s perfected in his recent works.
Set in Knoxville, Tenn., the play eavesdrops on five bridesmaids (all wearing the same puffy, powder-blue, nightmarish bridesmaid dress) holed up in a bedroom hiding from the wedding reception taking place outside. The bedroom belongs to Meredith (Deva Johnson), the tough and bitter sister of the invisible bride, who storms into the room wearing a black-leather jacket over her dress. Johnson’s square-jawed, stone-faced portrayal exuded a furnace-set-to-explode demeanor that suited her character’s inner conflicts. Stomping about the room looking for a hidden joint, she mouthed off about how much of a jerk everyone was (especially her bourgeois family), while hinting at buried issues stemming from her second-fiddle status to her beautiful sister (as well as even deeper traumas).
Meredith’s jagged volume (however effective) seemed in danger of overwhelming the other bridesmaid characters, but Clemens was in control, playing with the dynamics effectively and giving each woman a turn in the spotlight.
There was Frances (Giovanna Leah), Meredith’s naive “good girl” cousin who let the Bible do her thinking; Georgeanne (Naomi Iversen), the former party girl who was sliding back to her party days in response to an unhappy marriage; Mindy (Miya Squires), the quick-witted lesbian and soon-to-be sister-in-law to Meredith; and the single, confident and very experienced 40-something Trisha (played gracefully and naturally by Sheri Bagley).
As mismatched as the characters seemed, their common purpose of avoiding irritating family/wedding guests, disdain for the “impossibly perfect” yet friendless bride as well as a relentless lothario (not to mention some booze and pot) created an atmosphere of a slumber party, peppered with monologues of confession or confrontation. Some of the serious subjects the script put forth were a little heavy-handed (Trisha’s flying off the handle at Frances was pretty cynical religion-bashing, and one woman’s molestation secret was too quick and clean).
Mostly, though, the characters developed by remembering bits of their histories and sharing laughter—which was the strongest thread throughout the play. The dialogue was quick and thrillingly shocking, and everyone was on her mark. In response to hearing it was one of the groomsmen who wrote “help me” on the bottom of the kneeling groom’s shoes, Meredith is so impressed she blurts out, “I wish I knew which one—I’d give him a blow job.” And Georgeanne’s recollection of a night of hot sex on the pavement next to a Dumpster causes her to swear that every time she smells garbage it takes her back to that night.
With the exception of the lone male character, Tripp (first-timer Matt Rollins), these good roles were fleshed out wonderfully. The standout was Bagley as Trisha. Even though the character was written with a lot more history than the other women, Bagley was living it like it was her own life, a dignified and intelligent Southern belle who’s been more naughty than nice. Very believable.
It’s also worth noting that the stage design (by Jaye Beetem and crew) was spectacular. It wasn’t walls with paint in a simulation of the inside of an old Southern mansion; it was actually an impeccably rebuilt bedroom, complete with moldings, windows and antique furniture. Seamless.