Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, the Alan Ball comedy that opens the Riverbend Theatre Collective's 2009 season, takes place during a wedding reception, and the production is kind of like a wedding reception - or at least, the reception for a bride and groom you don't know all that well. It might begin awkwardly, but after a few drinks, dances, and interesting encounters with people you otherwise wouldn't have met, you discover that you're having an unexpectedly fantastic time, and when it's over, you may realize that you're not quite ready to leave.
Certainly, anyone who has endured a particularly irritating postnuptial celebration can relate to the play's conceit, which features a quintet of bridesmaids frequently in hiding from the festivities. Set in the upstairs bedroom of the bride's sister, on a sprawling estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, Five Women finds Ball's titular characters sharing stories, laughs, and a mutual disinterest in the downstairs proceedings, and in basic outline, this mostly plotless, female-driven comedy would appear to be a theatrical sibling to Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias - albeit a cussing, pot-smoking, sexually active sibling. (Ironically, the Green Room Theatre is staging Steel Magnolias over the same weekends as Riverbend's presentation.) What it actually is, though, is a turquoise-clad take on The Breakfast Club, with five disparate characters - each of them an easily identifiable type - learning to appreciate one another's differences, and recognizing that they have far more in common than they initially thought.
As in The Breakfast Club, we're introduced to our protagonists one by one. The first to be seen is Frances (Kate Heiman), the mousy, deeply religious cousin to the (unseen) bride, Tracy. Then the bride's sister, Meredith (Sara Potts), enters, profoundly pissed off and in desperate need of a joint. Next to arrive is Trisha (Jessica Benson), a beautiful, composed friend from Tracy's past and a woman with a considerable past. (The 31-year-old reveals to Meredith that she's slept with 100 different men, give or take.) Another of Tracy's former pals shows up in the bustling form of Georgeanne (Ryan Mosher-Ohr), unhappily married and harboring a crush on a groomsman. And finally, the groom's sister, Mindy (Molly Todd) appears, a cheerful, accident-prone lesbian with an impressively high metabolism. (She never stops eating, and to the chagrin of her fellow bridesmaids, is the most slender one in the bunch.)
Obviously, it won't take a working knowledge of the John Hughes film to guess that these dissimilar personality types will eventually clash, and even more eventually bond, and during the first half of Five Women's first act, you might feel a slight trepidation at the too-convenient labeling of Ball's characters. Given only their one introductory note to play - shy, angry, tranquil, and anxious - the first four characters to take the stage immediately seem less like people than stereotypical blueprints of people; they fit their prescribed, sit-commy roles so snugly that when we're informed of Mindy's homosexuality prior to her entrance, you half expect her to arrive wearing flannel and a tool belt. (At Saturday's performance, there were other, early distractions: Potts appeared to be suffering through a rather painful-sounding throat malady, and Frances' exaggerated yelp upon seeing a poster of Malcolm X left an uncomfortable after-taste. Plus, was it my imagination, or were the play's free-flowing champagne bottles actually filled with water?)
But as the play progresses, and the bridesmaids begin to relax with one another, Five Women begins to relax, too. Ball writes enjoyably snappish dialogue even during the most formulaic segments, yet both the author and the production become liberated once the women admit their shared lack of feeling for the bride; suddenly, they appear free to show different sides to their previously one-dimensional personas, and director Allison Collins-Elfline's cast is allowed to emerge as a quintet of multi-faceted, graceful, and buoyant comediennes.
Performers Benson and Potts have, for the past several seasons, displayed their talents in Augustana College productions, and Five Women is an exceptional argument for securing Augie's student talent for more off-campus endeavors. With her low, serenely self-possessed voice and elegant presence, Benson delivers a beautifully modulated portrayal of a woman who hasn't quite given up the hopes of romantic fulfillment - her flirtatious, tentative connection with the groomsman, Tripp (the endearing, deservedly confident Andy Lord) is intensely satisfying - and Potts is dynamically funny, reacting to the wedding-related nonsense with a biting, bitter sarcasm that never crosses over into obnoxiousness. (I hope the actress' throat heals soon, but for the moment, she's getting wonderful mileage out of her ailment; Potts' cracking voice results in a bunch of emotionally unforced readings, particularly during Meredith's Act II breakdown.)
Todd - who teaches at Augustana - makes a splendid local debut as the jovial, quick-witted Mindy, so friendly and comedically assured that you find yourself missing her when she's not around. (Just watching Todd stay in character here is practically an entire evening's entertainment; when, on Saturday, she accidentally dropped the napkin that was resting on her lap, her subsequent handling of the moment, dealing with crumbs and a minor blotch on her dress, felt like a fully-formed routine.) Heiman, also making her area debut with Five Women, delivers high-comic wonders and understated poignance - she's this pseudo-Breakfast Club's Ally Sheedy character - and is never funnier than when letting Frances' religious fears get the best of her, revealing that she's prepared for the Rapture to come "any minute. Any minute!!!"
And speaking of the Rapture, would it be too much to ask that Ryan Mosher-Ohr be cast in every local comedy from now 'til doomsday? It's always a delight to see this focused, madly inspired performer on stage, but she's in especially fine form as Georgeanne, scoring laughs with both the broadest and subtlest of strokes, sometimes within the parameters of one line. (The show reaches its pinnacle of hilarity when Georgeanne describes the sex she enjoyed near an outdoor dumpster, and admits, "I can't smell garbage without thinking about it.")
With Collins-Elfline staging lovely bit of unobtrusive business throughout, and technical designer Scott Clement providing a first-rate, appropriately lived-in set, Riverbend's season opener easily overcomes its initial bumps; Five Women Wearing the Same Dress is like a wedding reception that you eventually leave not only with great memories, but with a bunch of great new friends. It's a performance bouquet that everyone gets to catch.
For information, visit RiverbendTheatreCollective.com.