‘Five Women Wearing the Same Dress’ gets five stars, wows audiences

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When local director Zara Benner chose the 1993 comedy “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” for her winter staged reading, she had a tremendous script to vivify. Written by Oscar and Emmy-winning screenwriter Alan Ball (“American Beauty,” “Six Feet Under”), “Five Women” veers back and forth from playful to tragic, providing rich material for the small, almost exclusively female cast. Ball pairs witty banter and physical comedy with the emotional traumas of sexual abuse, failing marriages, bigotry and family dysfunction. The result is a production that walks the line between comedy and tragedy, using humor as a mode for cathartic expression. Both a witty, astute script and several strong performances distinguish the production as particularly enjoyable and thought-provoking.

The play’s title references the five bridesmaids of a wealthy, beautiful Southern debutante named Tracey, who the play references but who never appears onstage. While at first the bridesmaids appear to have little in common, they gradually bond over their shared dislike for Tracey and a desire to avoid the ostentatious reception. The play takes place in the childhood bedroom of Tracey’s rebellious younger sister Meredith (Lora Oliver). A misfit in the Knoxville, Tennessee, high society of her family, Meredith resents constantly being compared to her sister. While Meredith frequently leaves to fulfill various nuptial duties, her bedroom acts as an axis around which the events of the play unfold, providing shelter for the other bridesmaids who need an escape from the party.

Frances, a sheltered fundamentalist Christian portrayed by UC Berkeley graduate Danielle Diaz, uses the room for reprieves from the drinking and revelry below. Tracey’s self-proclaimed “ugly former sidekick” Georgeanne (Lisa Wang) hides there during an emotional breakdown incited by the sight of an old love interest. Mindy (Melissa Clason), the sister of the groom, spends the night avoiding Tracey, who snubbed her partner by not inviting her to the rehearsal dinner out of homophobia. The fifth bridesmaid, Tracey’s beautiful former friend Trisha (Laura Domingo), stays in the room to watch over Georgeanne.

As the women bond over weed and alcohol, opening up as they became more intoxicated over the course of the play, the audience learns of the interconnected emotional burdens inflicted by men at the wedding party. The play delves gently into the worlds of the five diverse female personalities, with particular emphasis on the ways in which women can be complicit in the victimization of other women by men.

Tracey, for example, is universally vilified by her bridesmaids, despite allusions to the clearly toxic relationship she suffered through with former fiance Tommy Valentine, a man responsible for more than one character’s grief. And while the descriptions of Tracey suggest a personality that leaves something to be desired, much of the negative commentary focuses on her beauty, wealth and generally “perfect” exterior. Mindy points out after one particularly disturbing revelation that the women of the play direct their hostility not at the men who have wronged them but at relatively tangential women who play no part in their suffering.

The cast delivered almost universally strong performances, with Clason particularly standing out for her immaculate comedic timing and understated portrayal of the clumsy, long-suffering Mindy. Like Clason, Domingo’s performance was notable for its restraint and nuance, which balanced out the occasionally overacted dramatics of Wang’s Georgeanne and Oliver’s Meredith. To be fair, Wang and Oliver have difficult, sometimes unlikable, characters to play, but while Georgeanne’s emotional breakdown is consciously outrageous, Wang pushes it to a point where the over-the-top melodrama loses both its humor and its poignancy. Even so, these shortcomings apply to only a few moments in the production, and all of the actors ultimately delivered satisfying performances.

The play stands out in its success both as a comedy and a drama. To the credit of an outstanding script and versatile actors, this production of “Five Women in the Same Dress” was both funny — legitimately funny — and an incisive exploration of female friendships.

Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” will be playing until April 18 at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. 

Contact Grace Culhane at [email protected].