Five Women Wearing the Same Dress was first mentioned in these pages back in the ’90s. Back then, we’d heard rumors of a wacky off-Broadway comedy that happened to be set in Knoxville. We never made the trip to see it. It seemed unlikely to be either accurate, flattering, or important, and we forgot about it.
But the play attracted Hollywood’s attention to its playwright, Atlanta native Alan Ball, who later earned an Oscar for his script for the memorable 1999 film American Beauty. He has gone on to become a TV big shot, as writer and producer for the series Six Feet Under and True Blood.
His Knoxville-based play is getting its Knoxville premiere at the Clarence Brown Lab Theatre thanks to our resident diva Carol Mayo Jenkins. She has a lengthy acting resume, most famously for Fame, the popular 1980s TV series on which she was a regular. She’s been seen in a variety of Clarence Brown mainstage roles, but she’s working this time as a director.
It’s not clear whether Ball had personal experience with a West Knoxville wedding, but those familiar with that milieu may find this drama easy to picture in the châteaux of Lyons View or Cherokee Boulevard or Riverbend. Jenkins took some director’s license by folding in more local references than Ball himself included: to Cherokee Country Club, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Webb School, Calhoun’s, and Toot’s Little Honky Tonk.
It’s a two-act, one-scene play set in the bedroom of the bride’s younger sister, Meredith. It’s a Southern Living bedroom decorated, incongruously, with a poster of Malcolm X. (The bride herself appears only in a voiceover at the beginning, telling us about the emergency exits.) Having successfully accomplished the wedding itself, the five bridesmaids shun the reception, content to watch it from the safe distance of a second-floor window. With the help of some pilfered champagne and a bit of marijuana, they enjoy their own party.
And yes, the bridesmaids are all wearing the same dress, a pink confection most of them hate, for different reasons. One says it makes her look like a linebacker, another like Bigfoot, another like Leona Helmsley.
These young women, who have little in common except for their dresses, proceed to reveal further revelations about themselves, some of them hilarious, some of them tragic. Five Women is in some ways similar to classic hostage or disaster dramas, a sort of taffeta-and-apricot-lipstick version of The Petrified Forest or Key Largo.
The little sister is the rebel, the frustrated suburban princess, played by newcomer Shea Madison, who glows; picture Olivia de Havilland if she’d gotten the Scarlett O’Hara role. Her cousin Frances is the virginal Christian, played by Chelsea Milligan. She’s perhaps a more interesting character than she seems at first, her submission to religion an alternative to submission to men. Georgeanne, the only one who’s married, is profoundly disappointed with the institution, and unsettled by her own transgressions; in that role Elizabeth Davis seems both vulnerable and obsessive. Trisha’s the sophisticated, sexually confident blonde. She’s played by Samantha Huskey, maybe the most familiar face in the cast, from several mostly supporting roles in CBT productions. This may be her last local performance for a spell; according to the program, she’s aiming for Hollywood.
I wasn’t sure I got a handle on Mindy, the lesbian who claims “dyke tendencies” and who seems politically defiant, but who nonetheless strikes another bridesmaid as a “country-club socialite.” She’s also reputedly clumsy, but never seems it except when the script demands it. Despite Chelsea Sparkes’ bright portrayal, she remains a puzzle, maybe the one person in this bedroom we don’t know in real life.
Slowly they come to the realization that though her life seems perfect, the bride chose the five of them because she has no friends.
The actors are all undergraduates, but the portrayals are appreciably low-key, as if proving this isn’t a community-theater farce. If the characters aren’t perfectly convincing, it may that they were hastily sketched to begin with. Why they all stay up here in this one room together, considering they’re barely friendly, when they’re expected downstairs at the party—which is mainly what they talk about—isn’t entirely clear.
Meredith’s the character who seems the mercurial fulcrum of the action—it’s her bedroom, after all—but midway through the second act she fades, and the drama unexpectedly shifts to another character. And that’s when a sixth character, a sort of Ken doll, is introduced. At that point the play tries to shift to a modernized screwball romance. But as written, it becomes an unlikely and tiresome dialogue. Fortunately, the ending picks up and almost redeems it.
The dialogue’s realistically profane, and a notice warns us about a brief instance of partial nudity. It would perhaps be ungentlemanly of me to divulge who’s involved, or where you need to sit to get the full effect.
It’s a fun, if sometimes harrowing thing to watch, even if you’re not planning a June wedding.