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City Theatre has gem with 'String of Pearls'

| Friday, Oct. 17, 2003

Funny, female-friendly and thoroughly engaging, Michele Lowe's "String of Pearls" is -- in the most positive sense -- a chick flick for the discerning woman.

City Theatre began its 2003-04 season Wednesday night with the world premiere of Lowe's play in which 23 very different, always interesting women are connected by a pearl necklace that passes through their lives.

Lowe's characters range in age from a temperamental 3-year-old to a 72-year old widow. Most of them are in their mid-30s to mid-50s; professionals and stay-at-home moms; widowed, divorced, married or single.

Their tribe includes an about-to-be married research scientist, a 300-pound lesbian grave digger, an Algerian hotel housekeeper, a French Holocaust survivor and a cafeteria worker who lives in the Bronx.

Tribe is, I think, an accurate word because more than the necklace links them. Their experiences as wives, mothers, caregivers and simply women connect them. What also links them is dissatisfaction. Almost universally, they yearn for a more satisfying life than the one they're living.

Men don't come off very well in their accounts. The guys are mostly absent either physically, emotionally or both. The one we do hear the most of -- Albert, the only male portrayed onstage -- is physically abusive.

But don't misunderstand.

"String of Pearls" offers abundant humor, warmth, poignancy and a touch or two of mystical realism during its intermissionless hour-and-45 minutes. It's not unlike having a good, long visit with some close friends.

Scenic designer Loy Arcenas provides a cool, minimalist set of silvery panels that move to signal changes in place and time, a couple of painted wooden chairs and a starry backdrop. A rectangular pool of water covered with clear acrylic stands center stage, although it's unclear why or what it symbolizes. Thomas Hase's sensitive lighting supports and enhances the shifts in mood and tempo.

Directed by Eric Simonson, four talented actresses, led by Helena Ruoti, endow Lowe's two-dozen characters with shape, depth, texture and reality through detailed gesture, intonation, movement and expression.

If there's a lead character, it's Ruoti's Beth. We see her as the 72-year-old widow and grandmother who sets out to find the missing pearl necklace and as the 39-year-old suburbanite who first received it. She's both touching and funny as the wife who creates her own '60s sexual revolution with her own husband and equally poignant as a lonely transferee desperate to form new friendships in a new town.

It's somewhat difficult to warm up to Rebecca Harris' characters -- especially a controlling political consultant who beds her sister's husband on a whim and the long-suffering Abby who avenges herself with her mother's funeral. She's more approachable as Beth's granddaughter Amy, the about-to-be-wed research scientist for whom the necklace is sought.

Sheila McKenna earns the biggest laughs for her down-to-earth portrayals of "cultured white trash," Abby's overbearing and opinionated mother and a 300-pound lesbian gravedigger who's concocting a love potion. She's less sympathetic as a self-pitying, resentful architect turned stay-at-home mom.

Sharon Washington brings emotional depth to Josianne, the Algerian housekeeper separated from her daughter; and the over-burdened mortician's assistant caring for her senile mother. She's also lots of fun as the chic Beverly.

Men who attend may come away with some insight into the world of women. But women who bring along their mothers, sisters, adult daughters, friends and business colleagues should find it a rewarding preface to a longer, deeper conversation.

Additional Information:

Details

The City Theatre Company production of 'String of Pearls' continues through Nov. 2 at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham at South 13th St. on the South Side.

Performances: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 5:30 p.m. Saturdays; 9 p.m this Saturday, Oct. 25 and Nov. 1; and 2 p.m. this Sunday, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2.

Tickets: $28 to $38; $15 for ages 25 and younger and senior citizens beginning two hours before each show. Details: (412) 431-2489 or online .

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