Nearly eight years after the now-defunct BareBones Theatre Group presented Five Women Wearing the Same Dress at Spirit Square, a relatively new upstart, Three Bone Theatre, has brought Alan Ball's comedy to UpStage in NoDa. Ball's star power has dimmed somewhat since the days when his American Beauty and Six Feet Under were scooping up awards by the armful, but the only thing that seems dated about Five Women is that none of the bridesmaids is tethered to an electronic device.
Instead of transplanting the unseen Tracy's wedding reception to Charlotte, as BareBones did in 2006, Three Bone director Hardy Koenig returns us to 1987 Knoxville, the true Tennessee location of Ball's 1993 script. Stephen Seay's set design stays reasonably true to the era with a corded phone perched on the nightstand of Tracy's renegade sister Meredith's bed, but I doubt the treadmill near the foot of her bed dates back quite that far.
Nor do I think that Ball conceived the nuptials of the "rich white Republican bitch" as bi-racial, but Koenig's audacity in remaking it that way gives the comedy a whole new set of edges each time the subject of race comes up. Instead of the all-white cast we saw laying low in Meredith's bedroom in 2006, the Three Bone cast is evenly split. Not only is Tracy's new sister-in-law, the lesbian Mindy, an African American, so are the bride's former best friend Tricia — discarded because she was a "bad influence" — and that free spirit's latest pursuer, the suave and cocky Griffin Lyle Davenport, better known as Tripp.
Still criminally white are Francis, who reminds us that she's Christian upwards of 20 times, and Georgeanne, still aching for dreamboat louse Tommy Valentine, an old boyfriend that Tracy lured away from her years ago. Rubbing in the hurt, Tommy V is now making a fresh conquest at the wedding as Georgeanne nurses a bottle and stews upstairs with a bird's-eye view. The playboy has a history with more than one of the women up there in Meredith's boudoir, so he remains a hot topic deep into Act 2.
When Five Women premiered in Charlotte, Georgeanne's drunkenness and the torch she carried for Tommy were enough to give her an equal share of the spotlight with Meredith, whose rebelliousness is expressed by a leather motorcycle jacket, a joint stashed away in her bathroom, and the odd flashing episode — along with a lifetime of resentment against her older beauty queen sister and her parents. Here the balance shifts, in large measure because Koenig's concept paves the way for the marvelous Tania Kelly to take on the role of Meredith's longtime idol, Tricia.
Like all the most riveting performers you can remember, Kelly brings a piercing intelligence to the elder renegade, paired with an iconoclastic unpredictability. Dammit, she can even surprise herself, proving to be susceptible to love despite all her worldliness. With Kelly's supreme confidence setting us up all evening long, that last revelation is icing on the cake.
Yet she isn't overshadowing Three Bone managing artistic director Robin Tynes, who takes on the role of Meredith. If you were among the too few who saw Tynes in the recent CAST production of Angels in America — or even if you weren't — her work as Meredith will easily substantiate my claim that she was as good as any Harper Pitt I'd seen on Broadway or on TV. In a way, Meredith's character arc mirrors Tricia's, for she also proves vulnerable deep in Act 2, belying her leather-clad toughness. Kelly and Tynes give us a superb study of their kindred spirits.
The other bridesmaids aren't on the same lofty level. Tiffany Bryant nails her charm school moment as Mindy, but she's needlessly bland otherwise; and after a sloshy entrance as Georgeanne, Becky Schultz doesn't build on her initial éclat, gradually fading to a subsidiary presence. Koenig gets a fine entrance from Callie Bachorski as Francis to kick things off with some effective physical comedy, but she's almost entirely poutiness and prudery afterwards, missing numerous opportunities to round out the Christian's character with the blushing carnal urges that won Kristen Jones an MTA Award when she played the role.
Fortunately, we get some compensation for that missing heat with the arrival of Mason "Quill" Parker just when Act 2 seems to be growing too long. Parker brings just the right blend of winsome nonchalance and predatory determination to make it clear why Tripp has come. It doesn't seem at all forced when the women clear the room so he can make his play for Tricia. Indeed, the balance of play and seriousness in the rituals of coupling is very much at the heart of what Ball wishes to show us. So it's delightful that, in Parker, Koenig has found someone else who can hold the stage with Kelly when the sparring begins.
Is it necessary to use curse language when reviewing a children's musical?