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Illuminated Dresses at Burning Coal Is Interesting, Moving, and Enlightening

It is always very gratifying (as well as illuminating) to hear another person “speak from the heart.” Debra Kaufman and OdysseyStage’s production of Illuminated Dresses, currently playing in Burning Coal Theatre Company‘s Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh, NC, offers the rare opportunity to witness more than a dozen individual women as they delve into the depths of their own identities and share whatever treasure they find, thereby baring their souls for all the see.

It has been said that “Clothes make the man.” Naturally, in this somewhat more enlightened era, it would be more proper to say “Clothes make the person.” What this show (conceived by Debra Kaufman and directed by Lori Mahl) does is this: it focuses on a specific point in the lives of a wide variety of women, a moment in which a dress, a specific article of clothing did indeed “make the person.”

Sometimes, the key point is that she wanted the dress. At other times, she tried to avoid the dress. At still other times, she would acknowledge the role that the dress played in her life and then choose to dissociate herself from it. The common thread: the dress played a major role in establishing who she would become, thereby lighting (illuminating) the way to her future.

Seven talented actresses– Amy Lloyd, Julie Hall Oliver, Kim Camp, Sierra Smith, Melanie Simmons, Sabrina Aldridge, and Sandra Wallace-Smith — bring to life the work of 13 playwrights — Amanda Almodovar, Doreen Blue, Beth Copeland, Jessica Feder-Birnbaum, Danielle Fenton, Anne Flanagan, Jaki Shelton Green, Debra Kaufman, Gena Rawdon, Margo Rife, Steffi Rubin, Cynthia Strauff Schaub, and Mary Turner — with six of the actresses creating two very distinct characters, each in decidedly different circumstances.

This “English major” (me) found all of these monologues to be very poetic in nature, but only one — “The Communion of White Dresses,” written by Jaki Shelton Green and performed by Sandra Wallace-Smith — is actually written in verse. As Wallace-Smith speaks the enchanting, almost liturgical lines, four of the other actors perform a dreamlike sequence of synchronized movements.

Among the many strengths of this production: there are no “throwaway lines.” Every word spoken by every character offers significant illumination into their lives and their consciousness as well as their pasts, their presents, and their futures.

Every one of these performances was affecting in its own way, but I was especially moved by Julie Hall Oliver, who — as Ann in Cynthis Strauff Schaub’s “The Business Suit,” — distills the essence of an individual confidently making a major change in her life, eschewing most of the clothes-that-make-the-person trappings of her former life but holding on to just a few of the accoutrements that promise to be meaningful in her new life.

Similarly, Melanie Simmons, as Diana in Danielle Fenton’s “The Motherlode of Necessity,” creates a person who finds herself at a crossroads when the set-in-stone traditions of generations previous to her own are suddenly at odds with the realities of the younger generation. Bonus: “Motherlode” also packs a quite comic punch.

Doreen Blue’s “My Girl Scout Uniform Saga” was especially poignant, as it carries a sense of the autobiographical (because the character, also portrayed by Simmons, shares the playwright’s first name: Doreen). There is a bitter-sweetness to this Doreen’s memories that evoked warm smiles as well as the occasional tear.

Set designer John Paul Middlesworth has supplied an acting area that is presided over by an array of “dress dummies,” thereby establishing the dominating effect of clothing over the lives of individuals.

The efforts of costume designer Karen Anderson are essential to bringing the various vignettes to life. One word here will suffice: Bravo!

From the Department of Picky-Picky: (And this is a fault of mine rather than of the production.) I will have to confess that I found myself expecting the characters to adorn the dress dummies with the clothing that was used as props in their scenes.

If you are looking for theater that is interesting, moving, and enlightening — perhaps, I should say illuminating — I definitely recommend this show to you.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To obtain more information about and buy tickets for this presentation of Illuminated Dresses, which runs runs through Sunday, Nov. 3rd, click here.

REVIEWER: Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews