For perhaps half of its 90 intermission-less minutes Michelle Lowe's String of Pearls is as discerning and as lively as the sleek, chic regional premiere production it was given by director D. Lynn Meyers at Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati (ETC). This is the second entry in the theater's six-show '06-07 lineup and, despite its sins, is a significant step in the right direction after the all-glitz, no-guts, cruise ship version of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's Mack and Mabel that opened the season.
Of course, things are likely to get lively when you people a stage with four actresses as able, engaging and persuasive as (alphabetically) ETC veterans Annie Fitzpatrick, Sherman Fracher and Dale Hodges -- and newcomer Zina Camblin, who's a Cincinnatian and a graduate of the School for Creative and Performing Arts as well as the University of California, San Diego. Camblin might bring fewer credits to her ETC debut, but she takes stage at the same assured level of polish as her more experienced confederates.
The four of them skip merrily from character to character, playing all 27 of the women Lowe created as she pursued the script's gimmick and strung together its dozen or so scenes. In each separate playlet, the same valuable string of matched, natural pearls is the motivating factor. Skein-like, the gleaming pearls pass from woman to woman -- sometimes given, sometimes filched, once lost then found, once thrown away into a river only to turn up again in the belly of a fish caught many miles away.
No woman remains quite the same after her exposure to the pearls. Some are even better for the experience. Not unexpectedly, since a string of pearls clasps into an endless circle, they wind up at play's end back in the hands of their original owner -- an event no more or less incredible than some others along the way.
Some of Lowe's scenes are poignant, some surgically prescient. Most are laced with raucous humor -- of which the four deft actresses make much. Other scenes thin out and turn talky. Likewise some of the characters are bare caricatures hung on a single quirk. Each actress has at least one compelling, stellar moment. Hodges is unforgettable as an ignored wife whose husband randies up at the mere thought of pearls; then she finds sweet revenge. Fracher is powerful as a balding cancer patient. Fitzpatrick is haunted as a frazzled daughter who needs a week's vacation from an ailing, demanding mother who can't remember her daughter's name. Then, in a quite different parent-child wrangle, Camblin is sly boots herself as a daughter who takes even sweeter revenge once her snobby, forever critical mother is suddenly -- and happily -- deceased.
Gentlemen, beware upon entering ETC: This is a play by a woman about women who are, most of them, quite adamantly self-sufficient, thank you very much. No men appear. A number are mentioned. Their actions are decried, and their characters are defined in acid tones. None escape Lowe's notice unscathed.
Sleek and splendidly apropos are the set and lighting designed by ETC's endlessly inventive Brian c. Mehring: Sharply angled beige walls, white doors and a white-planked floor lure viewers inside the play as they narrow, forcing the perspective and arrowing toward an enormous, ego-boosting mirror; undulations of white sand along walls and hallways make the locale at once a dozen different rooms and a variety of beaches. Sound designer Fitz Patton combined music and effects into an excellent supporting soundscape. And Reba Senske costumed the women in sensitive selections of white and blue.
It's absolutely appropriate that playwright Lowe would choose a string of natural pearls as the script's motivator and metaphor. Diamonds or emeralds or opals couldn't express the same feminine subtext. Alone among precious jewels, pearls are born of a living creature, nurtured around a grain of sand inside a parenting body and birthed in pain. Grade: B+
STRING OF PEARLS, produced by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Nov. 5.