Berwyn’s Footlighters STRING Together Some PEARLS of Wisdom

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Footlighters Theater on Main Avenue in Berwyn, continues their 2014—2015 season with a production of Michele Lowe’s STRING OF PEARLS. Directed by Connie Giordano, the play is a series of vignettes that introduce us to an array of 27 women (of various socio-economic backgrounds) and spans 35 years as the eponymous necklace passes through the lives of these divergent characters. The necklace is handed down, gifted, stolen, broken, bartered and nearly lost as it travels from owner to owner. STRING OF PEARLS was first produced in 2003 at the City Theatre Company of Pittsburgh; it then went on to a production at Primary Stages in New York the following year, and has enjoyed successful productions in regional theatres around the country ever since.

Written to be performed by four actresses, the play can be a tour-de-force for the ladies as they morph from persona to persona. Lowe’s writing is both heartfelt and hilarious, and as the various moments play out the viewer sees the inner strengths and weaknesses of these women—as well as how easily life can fall apart, like the pearls do at one point. Some of the characters are fascinating and you wish you could spend more time with them; others just don’t resonate as easily. The story never fails to hold your interest, however.

STRING OF PEARLS is an unusual play in that simple staging is the best, balanced by nuanced and calibrated performances. Footlighters’ version has highs and lows. The set design (Ron Hamaday, Mack Hamilton and Kirk Paul) was simple, but lacked imagination and seemed to frequently get in the way of the actresses. Carl Lotz’s lighting design is serviceable, as is the sound (uncredited)—however, I wished there was more inventiveness in both. The costumes and hairstyles were well done, evoking the era or class; unfortunately, a couple of changes slowed the action down and we were left looking at an empty stage and hearing dead air, which took me out of the moment.

Susan Chase plays the pivotal role of Beth—the original owner of the pearls. She does well, but there were moments where the adage “less is more” applied. Her portrayal of Victoria (a Missouri mom trying to fit in on New York’s Upper East Side) was her best work. Karen Eckstein-Sarkissian showed the least amount of transformation from character to character. Perhaps it was nerves, but she needs to relax and dive into these ladies a little more. Anne Lannak does well with the 7 ladies she’s playing, with Kyle the beleaguered funeral worker being her strongest. She gives the viewer a solid sense of the exhaustion of trying to hold down a job and deal with a mother in full-blown dementia. The most nuanced acting of the ensemble is turned in by Cathy Gibbons Mostek. She tugs at the heart as both a mother dying of cancer and a cultured Jewish woman who survived the turmoil in France during WW II. Then turns around to mine the laughs of a rough-around-the-edges Brooklyn mom who likes to go to MOMA and the Whitney. Her best work blends both humor and pathos when she jumps full-throttle into “Cindy,” a 300-pound gravedigger.

Giordano generally paces things well, but the staging was a tad static at times. It is clear she and her actors love the play and the story it tells, however a sense of “play” was missing. Perhaps as the run progresses they’ll settle in and find the gems in each moment. Yes, STRING OF PEARLS has a feminist bent, but gentlemen will find things to enjoy in the play as well. Since Valentine’s Day is here, why not take your special someone to this “love story?”

by Michele Lowe
Directed by Connie Giordano
February 6—21, 2015
Footlighters Theater
58 Main Avenue
Berwyn, PA 19312

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