“Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” brings to life every bridesmaid’s worst nightmare: frilly, beaded, sea foam green tulle dresses with floppy white hats and matching sling back sandals with bows on the strap.
Written by Alan Ball (of “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under” acclaim), “Five Women” tells the story of five identically clad bridesmaids who avoid an ostentatious Knoxville, Tennessee, wedding reception by hiding out in a bedroom upstairs. The bedroom in question, decorated in nauseating amounts of pink and purple, belongs to Meredith (Natalia Duncan ’06), the faux-rebellious little sister of the bride. Meredith’s fellow bridesmaids include her holier-than-thou Christian cousin Frances (Lauren Coppola ’07), the wildly emotional and stumbling drunk Georgeanne (Anna Rebek ’06, who also directed the play), Trisha (former scene editor Susan Posluszny ’06), the token whore who boasts over 100 notches on her bedpost, and the groom’s waggish lesbian sister Mindy (Kristen Pring-Mill ’05). While these women have more in common than their cringe-inspiring attire — they all also hate the annoyingly perfect bride Tracy — each has her own reasons for avoiding the festivities below.
Meredith suffers from the textbook little sister complex: she is sick of being known as Tracy’s little sister and longs to carve herself a unique niche in the world. She tries in earnest to be truly rebellious by listening to Eminem and draping her otherwise sorority princess-worthy bedroom with 50 Cent posters. Duncan’s performance may seem fake and annoyingly over-acted until it becomes clear that Meredith’s attention-seeking ploys would be just as superficial in real life. And when the time comes for Meredith to reveal the pain behind her rage, Duncan lets the vulnerability lurking beneath her hardened veneer peek through just enough.
There are suddenly interspersed, emotionally charged moments throughout the play that will catch the audience completely off guard. The drama of the play often comes in unexpected surges — moments of hilarity quickly escalate into heated shouting matches about religious freedom, or dissolve into tearful revelations of the characters’ darkest secrets.
The most impressive performance in “Five Women” is undoubtedly Rebek’s portrayal of the emotionally troubled, sex-starved Georgeanne (then again, it is Rebek’s theater studies final project). Rebek assumes Georgeanne’s self-described “sick ticket” character unbelievably well, bringing a such a mature presence to the stage that the audience will easily forget that she is a college senior rather than a thirty-something mother suffering from a loveless marriage. Georgeanne — who fluctuates between convulsive sobbing episodes, outbursts of rage and snappy comedy — definitely highlights Rebek’s range as an actress.
The almost all-female cast is a strong, balanced ensemble and does justice to the character-driven nature of the play. And, as an unavoidable result of eavesdropping on five women together in a closed room, talk of sex and complaints about men abound. Georgeanne and Trisha unabashedly speak about the glamour of mind-blowing behind-the-dumpster parking lot sex, and all five women lament their mutual involvement with the aptly named stud Tommy Valentine, who is at the reception chasing a woman in a backless blue linen dress.
But at the same time that Tommy Valentine represents the epitome of masculine evil, bridezilla Tracy is inarguably one of the most vehemently reviled characters. The bridesmaids exclaim: “She’s perfect. She always has been. I hate her.” There are definite stereotypical man-hating feminist undertones (Georgeanne at one point exclaims, “there is a certain amount of freedom in lettin’ your tits fly”) but men and women are equally vilified. “Five Women” is more concerned with exploring the specific relationships the characters have had with both men and women throughout their lives.
And in the end, Trisha’s love interest Tripp enters the scene and redeems the audience’s faith in both men and love as he woos the most romantically cynical of the five women.
But the confrontation between Trisha and Tripp is rife with wooden dialogue and clichés. The female-female relationships are staggeringly more dynamic than anything happening between Trisha and Tripp. Ball would have been better off had he kept all masculine appearances off stage and restricted to the bridesmaid’s conversations. Their prolonged encounter causes the play’s ending to lose momentum and detracts from the powerful main thrust of the dramatic action. But Kaufman and Posluszny do the best the can and try in earnest to make the sexual tension palpable despite their stale lines.
On balance though, “Five Women” is both entertaining and at times emotionally challenging. It is certainly ambitious in the scope of its societal commentary — underlying anxieties about lesbianism surface (“but they look just like real women!”); pedophilia and sexual assault make an appearance; religious fundamentalism comes under attack; and the compatibility of marriage and modernity is called into question. It is a play that tackles macrocosmic questions within the microcosm a single afternoon wherein the lives of five enormously different women intersect.