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PlayMakers Repertory Company has chosen as its “Christmas” offering String of Pearls, a show that is a gift to its patrons — a highly enjoyable two-and-a-half hours of hilarity and pathos. We follow the path taken by one woman’s gift from her husband, a superbly matching string of white pearls. This play, written by Michele Lowe (The Smell of the Kill, Good on Paper), traces the bizarre path these pearls follow, from the time they are presented to their original owner by her husband, until they are bought (for a ridiculously low sum) by a lesbian for her new-found, 74-year-old lover. Along the way they are stolen, sold, hidden, lost, broken, mistaken for paste, prepared for burial, and, most often, given as a token for a multitude of various “services rendered.”
Returning guest director Trezana Beverley (Yellowman, Salomé), stages String of Pearls in her signature style of DanzActing™, which incorporates dance into the staging and blocking of the work. To accommodate this style, the stage is almost completely bare; there is a blue backdrop, a single bare tree, and any furniture required is brought on and off by the four members of a most exceptional cast.
Since Lowe’s work is, first and foremost, an examination of the lives of a number of late-20th-century women, this cast is all female. There are men in the stories these women tell us, but we never see them. It is, perhaps, just as well. Most are brutes and mountebanks, and all but one have either died or been discarded by the women who tell us of them.
At curtain’s rise, we are met by a family whose patriarch, Ethan, has been dead 36 years. His wife, the head of the household, has lost her husband to a heart attack and her daughter to cancer. Her granddaughter, Amy (PRC associate artist Kathryn Hunter Williams), is about to be married; Grandmother (guest artist Diane Ciesla) wants Amy to wear her pearls, but they are nowhere to be found. She knows she gave them to her daughter Linda (guest artist Susan Barrett in her PRC debut) when she married, but Linda did not pass them on to Amy. On her deathbed with cancer, Linda gives the pearls to her housemate and companion, Ella Louise (company member Allison Reeves). Here the international journey of this particular treasure takes its first major turn.
At this point we travel backward 36+ years to learn how and why Ethan decided to buy his wife such a magnificent string of pearls. That story is alone worth the price of admission, and Ciesla tells it magnificently. But it is merely the starting point of a journey that is so bizarre and so geographically vast, that we can do nothing but be carried along by it. And as we follow, we come to learn the lives and circumstances of the myriad women who, for a time, possess this marvelous strand.
We have already met several women, but the histories of only a few are key; they are the ones who hold, for a time, this costly and emotional treasure in their hands. Ella Louise loses her pearls — they are stolen from her by her ex while he is back East visiting his daughter. He gives them to his California girlfriend, a high-ranking businesswoman, Helen. Helen loses them on a one-night stand with her sister’s husband, who rips them from her neck and scatters them about the hotel room. They are reassembled by the maid, a young mother from Tunis, who under his orders turns them over to her man, Arthur. He sells them (again, for a ridiculously low price) to an international jeweler who transports them to Paris. In a bizarre turn of events, they end up in the hands of a Jewish matron who is the chaperone for a ballet company. Left behind, they are found in her abandoned New York apartment by Les, wife of Josh and mother to Alexis. Feeling they later cost her her desperately-needed ring of friends, Les casts them into the Hudson River. They are consumed by a fish who is caught by a woman who, convinced they are fake, gives them to the funeral home attendant to have them buried with her mother. But the attendant steals the pearls and sells them to put her own mother in a nursing home temporarily, so that she can have a much-needed rest. She sells them to a friend, a 300-pound lesbian who wants to give them to the woman she has just met in a bar, a 74 year-old who reads 14th century poetry.
Every step of the way seems as real to us as the women who tell us these stories, and the sum total of the work is more than its several parts. This cast is magnificent, and every word rings as true as this perfect strand of pearls. Although the play is more narrative than it is dramatic, it is so excellently told by this quartet in its multiple characters that we are enchanted and enthralled. Magnificent as they may be, these pearls are nowhere near the treasures of the tales they take part in. And each and every one is masterfully told.
Note: On Dec. 1st, there will be a 10:30 a.m. educational matinee, followed by a group discussion between students and cast members and artistic staff. Study guides will be sent in advance to help prepare students for the performance they will see. Tickets are $5 per student, with teachers and chaperones will be admitted free of charge. (There must be one teacher or chaperone for every 15 students.) To make reservations for this Educational Matinee, telephone PlayMakers Director of Education and Outreach David Lorenc at 919/962-2491.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents String of Pearls Tuesday-Wednesday, Nov. 22-23, at 8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Nov. 25-26, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 27, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Nov. 29-Dec. 3, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 4 and 11, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529). Note 1: There will be wheelchair-accessible seating and assisted-listening devices available at all performances. Note 2: The Dec. 6th performance will be an All-Access-Night performance, with sign-language interpretation; assisted-listening devices; audio description, Braille playbills, large print playbills, and a tactile tour for patrons with impaired vision; and wheelchair access. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=84 [inactive 2/06]. Excerpt: http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/pdf/Excerpts/exStringOfPearlsSK2.pdf [inactive 10/06]