The setup is simple: A behind-closed-doors conversation among bridesmaids forced to wear uniformly atrocious dresses. From its gossip and secrets to the kind of brutal honesty that is as unsettling as it is amusing, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is a gem of a play. The show, produced by Alpha Psi Omega, a dramatic honor society at UNC Asheville, runs through Sunday, Sept. 23, at 35below.
The 1993 play was penned years before playwright Alan Ball gained fame with his HBO shows “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood.” Conversations about AIDS testing, men wearing earrings and hidden lesbian relationships trap the play in an early ’90s setting, though the production does not specifically state the time frame.
Missy Sullivan directs the five women (all in bridesmaid attire) and a groomsman with an earring, a twinkle in his eye and a tiny bag of cocaine. The ladies have all retreated to a bedroom while they wait for the bar at the reception to open. They know each other but either have little in common or have drifted apart. They all seem to have issues with the bride, and most have pasts involving more than one man at the wedding.
There are a lot of growing pains on display in the first act. 35below is an intimate space in which it’s distracting when actors pretend to light a cigarette or a joint, while obviously not lighting up. The characters are also a bit older and more world-weary than the young actors are or can honestly relate to. Luckily, Act I and those uneasy moments are short.
The cast finds comfort in the roles and chemistry with each other in Act II, which is breezier and alternately more emotionally demanding, as more than one dark secret is revealed. One is particularly unsettling.
As the bride’s rebellious younger sister Meredith, Rachel Anderson shines. So does the religious and repressed Frances, played with sincere sweetness by Grace Siplon. Rebecca Boyce, Anna Zurliene and Raina Trent all have standout moments as the play weaves through an array of emotions (both outright and repressed) that are loosened by marijuana and alcohol. Trent gets to have a major scene with Ryan Patrick Miller’s Tripp, late in the show, and their flirtations take on a classic Hollywood film-style banter. The two clearly enjoy the scene and are fun to watch.
There’s a nimbleness to the writing that propels the play. It’s the sort of script seasoned performers crave and can elevate. The characters and situations seem simple, but Ball’s craftsmanship as a writer exposes the raw humanity the bridesmaids struggle to keep hidden. The UNCA students are to be credited for having the courage to attempt such roles and emotions, even when they struggle to ring true. There’s little doubt that having done this show will help these performers grow and become even better actors.
WHAT: Five Women Wearing the Same Dress
WHERE: 35 Below, 35 Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Sept. 23. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $15