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What Really Happens in the Ladies Room

A play called If We Are Women in a place called the Women's Theatre Project? Shocking but true. What sounds like scary Lifetime television, though, is actually entirely satisfying, even if you happen to sport one of those crazy penis things. It's so satisfying that you should be prepared to speed-dial Mom after the show. She might be taken aback when she hears you blubber, "I just needed to call you" at 11 o'clock on a Saturday night, but mothers live for that kind of shit, don't they?

Well, sort of. Moms also live to develop their own rich lives, or at least attempt to, against varying odds. That's one message from If We Are Women, by Canadian playwright Joanna McClelland Glass. To illustrate, Glass composed an all-star team of female archetypes, placed them on the playing field of a late-June Connecticut beach house deck, and then let them scrimmage.

Here's the archetype roster. One divorced, middle-aged novelist -- Jessica (Lacy Carter) -- whose man-lover just died. One sassy daughter -- Polly (Jennifer Gomez) -- about to start Yale but not quite sure she wants to be a Bulldog. And two grand dames -- Jessica's illiterate mama, Ruth, from backwoods Canada (Kay Brady) and Jessica's educated Jewish ex-mother-in-law, Rachel, from Pennsylvania (Elayne Wilks). The game centers on Jessica's grieving for her lost man while dealing with her daughter's coming of age. Like menopausal John Maddens, the grandmas provide color commentary in this culture-clash coffee klatch.

If We Are Women is one of those plays that make us guys squirm (where's Neil LaBute when you need him?), with women living together synchronizing their periods and borrowing tampons. By intermission, however, you're so simpatico that even I was wondering where the nearest CVS was. I hope you ladies will cut me a break if I go on a little about menstrual blood, because I want to cut a deal up-front with your guy friends. To help them get over the hump, I'll give up the dialogue boys are likely to fear the most. And here it is, Grandma Ruth talking about down-on-the-farm techniques for period management:

"What we did was rip up old flour sacks. We tore 'em hard, on a washboard. Then we hand-stitched the edges, and we ironed them. What a business. Soaking the bloody rags in pails of cold water. And sometimes, with my mum and my sisters, there'd be four of us bleeding at once."

OK, guys, that's the worst of it. If you're genetically XY and you can handle that, you'll be fine until curtain call. Your prize will be an evening with four strongly developed, warm characters who are also played with much strength and warmth. However stressful it is to prepare a play, you can tell here that director Genie Croft and these four actors must have had a significant and entertaining journey to connect themselves with their characters and with one another. They have great stage chemistry.

What really steers the play away from the trite "woman play" zone is a thought-provoking exploration of a couple of issues -- intellectualism and illiteracy-- that are represented well by the two older women. Ruth can't read. Rachel has spent her life consuming books. While one has lived trapped by her inability to connect to the world, the other has locked herself inside her library to use book knowledge as a defense.

The result is a frank and beautifully real exploration of how Jessica's relationship with her ex-mother-in-law is stronger than that with her birth mother, whom she had left back in Canada when she ventured out in the world to pursue her calling to become a writer. Some might say Rachel is the show's heart, with her take-no-prisoners affirmation of the power of education to set women free. But my money's on Jessica, who is a combination of the matriarchs as she attempts to advise her own daughter about what path to take in life. Carter makes this earthy woman come alive as the bridge between the opposing worlds her mothers represent.

Last month, when I wrote about the play Trafficking in Broken Hearts at Sol Theatre Project, I said you wouldn't likely see that play (about gay male prostitutes) unless you fell into the category of gay men and the women who love them. Well, reverse that here. Women and their gay friends will hit If We hard. As for you sensitive straight guys? You can e-mail me and tell me how wrong I am.

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Dave Amber

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