The joke about bridesmaids wearing god-awful, poofy dresses with garish bows in putrid colors has been around so long that it feels antiquated. Surely brides have gotten the message by now, as sophistication levels on matters of taste have changed drastically. When there are a bazillion cable channels with so many fashion/clothing shows, and the digital age has changed the way we hear, see and view everything, it's all so monocultural. For better or worse, it's hard to believe that any bride, no matter how far in the sticks she lives, wants her maids to look like fashion's version of three-day-old cupcakes.
But perhaps in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1991, it's conceivable. That's the setting of Alan Ball's 1993 play Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, where—you guessed it—the titular quintet are bridesmaids. In Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' production, directed by Susan Sargeant, they're in hot-Pepto satin, with a few oversized bows, a bit of srunching on the front and below the waist, and a pillbox hat that, as one bridesmaid describes it, looks like a pin cushion. (Costume design is by Annell Brodeur.)
Ball would later win a screenwriting Oscar for 1999's American Beauty and create two popular series for HBO, the brilliant Six Feet Under and the gruesome, sex-laden saga of vampires and humans in a small Louisiana town, True Blood. But he loved the theater first, and continues to write plays. His work for stage and the big and small screens question conventional notions of American culture and power structures, and Five Women is an early, if light, taste of that.
In a terrific, frilly bedroom designed by Clare Floyd DeVries, we meet five bridesmaids hiding out from the wedding happening downstairs in the bride's family's home. They are the bride's sister Meredith (Catherine DuBord); friends from the past Frances (Heather Sims), Trisha (Emily Scott Banks) and Georgeanne (Barrett Nash); and the groom's lesbian sister Mindy (Catherine Wall). To compare them to the characters of another much-loved HBO series, Sex and the City, Frances would be Charlotte; Trisha, Samantha; and Meredith, Georgeanne and Mindy would each be varying ratios of a Carrie/Miranda mix.
And like those TV characters, Ball's women aren't easily written off as anything less than three-dimensional characters. You think you have them pegged one minute, and they surprise you the next. Yes, they have girly talk about crushes, sexcapades and make-up, but while they do so, prejudices, regrets, great memories and harrowing past experiences come out. If you think about it, that's not so different from what's probably happening in the room where the groomsmen hang. Just replace the make-up part with talk of what gym routines make the upper arms bigger or, if you want to get more Venus/Mars about it, how the University of Tennessee sports teams are doing.
That's what's smart about Ball's writing here. It has its chick-flicky moments and they're certainly not engaging in a conversation about nuclear fission—they are bridesmaids at a wedding, after all—but like these particular dresses and the feelings about them, it's not that black-and-white.
Sargeant's fine ensemble goes above and beyond to flesh that out. Each of these actresses finds more layers than a wedding cake, with much more substance. Sims does well by young, idealistic, Southern, Republican women everywhere; Wall has some of the best line delivery and a fantastic comic presence; and DuBord and Nash get their angry moments to let it all out, with Nash, especially, finding the comedy in anguish.
Banks' character is the promiscuous one, but also the most level-headed, keeping everyone in check and the group bonded together. Banks does that beautifully, and like the other four actresses, never takes it over the top. But it's her scene with Tripp (Will Christoferson), the only male character seen in the play (lots of them are talked about, as is the bride), where she delivers the goods on a woman who talks tough but will eventually let her guard down just enough for an element of surprise.
She'd be the one who'd pretend not to want to catch the bouquet, but would "accidentally" find it in her hand. She'd make fun of it all night, but then take it home and repurpose it as home decor, occasionally looking at it fondly. Perhaps even after its beauty has faded.