By Mary Sherman Willis
“We think back through our mothers, if we are women,” said Virginia Woolf, and that’s certainly true when it comes to our clothing, the theme of last weekend’s sold-out performances of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” at the RAAC Community Theater.
Patty Hardee directed the all-woman cast in a zinger-filled dramatic reading based on a book by Ilene Beckerman and written by Delia and Nora Ephron, best known for their witty romantic comedies, “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
In Linda Heimstra’s stage set, seven friends convene at a bistro to celebrate Gingy’s (Elizabeth Lee in a glamorous up-do) new memoir-in-clothes of three marriages, her career, the birth of her children and death of a child. Her story interweaves with others around the dinner table, sounding (as one reviewer said after the play’s 2009 off-Broadway opening) like “Sex in the City” meets “The Vagina Monologues.” Clothes become talismans of life events as men come and go, children are born and grow up, careers are had. And hovering over each of them, their mothers (or her ghost) remain a force of nature and a touchstone.
“I blame the death of my mother for my lack of fashion sense,” says one. Another (Cynthia Johnson) cringed at the memory of “the outfit” her mother bought her “when everyone was a hippie.”
“It looks like something you would wear!” she recalls crying to her mother.
There was the general humiliation of bra-buying. For one, it was her mother yelling, “The training bras are over here!” For another it was the “mono-boob” effects of a “Minimizer” Spandex bra. For yet another it was “Marveleene feeling me up in a utility closet,” for what turned out to be the perfect fitting strapless bra.
Clothes are about epic hunts: for the right purse (on backpack purses: “I looked like a Sherpa”), the right wedding dress and the right shoes (Birkenstock sandals “made me look like a troll from Middle Earth”).
And about the epic struggle over fat versus thin. “I’m an 8. I know I’m an 8,” says one disbelieving woman in a fitting room. And the sting of a mother’s verdict. “You have a very pretty face, you could be so attractive if you’d just lose weight,” says one. Says another, “You’re pretty enough for normal purposes.”
Still, it doesn’t take a mother to tell us that black, that playing-field-leveler, confers sophistication and form-flattery to all. Costumed in elegant black cocktail outfits, the seven actresses seemed to relish their roles, both comic and sad, while their solicitous bartender (Carolyn Thornton) kept their glasses full.
Sharon Kirkpatrick’s comic timing was spot-on as she dissected the mortifying “debris of a lifetime” in her “big dark hole” of a purse.
Nancy (Petrina Houston) told of surviving breast cancer at 29, of wearing lipstick into the operating room, her gown being “way more spa than surgical” and of how she designed the tattoos for her reconstructed breasts.
Heather (Deverell Pederson) considered her beautiful but mind-numbingly painful high heels, and “having to choose: heels or think.”
Merrill (Stephanie Mastri) remembered giving up her mini-skirt after being raped, but not her beloved and empowering leather boots. There were stories about pants with a strategic hole in them, worn for a prison visit. A “bad luck” wedding dress gets passed from mother to daughter, leaving a trail of divorces.
And there were fashion faux pas aplenty. Mimi Forbes recounted a mishap in a Betsey Johnson paper dress at a dinner party in the 1960s, in which the dress “must have been a predecessor to Bounty paper towels.” Madonna is invoked as fashion icon of the Eighties. “Anyone who tells you she didn’t dress like Madonna is either lying or Amish.”
As your mother might have said, “Is that what you’re wearing?” Sometimes she was right.