A play about women and their relationships with each other, “The Women” by Clare Boothe Luce is an assignment tailor-made for costume designer Michelle Pflüg, a senior in the School of Design and Production at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and is a great fit for guest director Giovanna Sardelli.
Set among Manhattan socialites during the height of the Great Depression, Luce’s dark comedy tells the story of Mary Haines, a well-mannered wife who learns that her wealthy husband, Stephen, is having an affair with Crystal Allen, a distinctly less well-behaved sales clerk. Mary’s relationships with her friends, her mother and her young daughter are developed through acid-tongued dialogue set in locations such as beauty parlors and women’s clothing stores.
Sardelli says the play runs the gamut from broader physical comedy to tender mother-daughter moments. “It has seeds of truth planted throughout,” she said. “Clare Boothe Luce has crafted a world — quite a remarkable world — that revolves around very specific women. Yet in her portrayal of more than 40 women, she reveals so many different points of view and different circumstances.”
Luce’s 40 female roles for 18 cast members (16 UNCSA students plus two young girls splitting the role of Mary’s daughter) meant a lot of costumes for Pflüg to design. She created 70 costumes, including shoes and undergarments, for a total of more than 600 costume pieces.
“The costume shop is building 10 looks for the play, and the rest of the items have been found though local costume shop rentals, local and online purchasing,” she said.
Pflüg said the costumes are crucial to the play. “The show is very big and there are a lot of actors on stage that have to be considered,” she said. “It is very important that the eight main socialite women (Mary and her friends) stand out on stage. This allows you to best follow them through the different scenes in the show,” she said.
Pflüg created a color palette for each of the main characters and then designed the remaining costumes to complement and define their roles. “There are many different characters, each with an important story to tell, and each one has to be made readily identifiable for the audience.”
Sardelli said most of the women’s stories, like the plot of the play, revolve around men “as did everything at that time – but the play is about the women. We are treated to seeing women in their private surroundings where they are free to talk and behave how they like,” she said.
The behavior isn’t always flattering. The play, which was first performed on Broadway in 1936, has been criticized for its portrayal of woman as shallow, conniving creatures who concern themselves mainly with finding rich husbands, and who will betray their dearest friends in the process. But Sardelli says those critics are missing the point.
“Luce wants us to laugh at ourselves,” she said. “She gives us permission to laugh at that which makes us silly and competitive but she also celebrates the strength and wisdom of women.”
The Women was daring fare in the 1930s, addressing themes of the modern woman, gossip, beauty standards, socioeconomic class, and marriage and divorce.
When news of her husband’s affair hits the gossip columns, Mary flees to Reno, Nevada, where liberal divorce laws shielded society women from scandal associated with infidelity and dissolving a marriage. She remains in Reno post-divorce to allow the gossip to die out, but learns while she is there that her husband has married Crystal. Now their roles are reversed, with Crystal the secure wife of a wealthy and successful man, and Mary is single once again. Their costumes reflect changes in status.
“Mary’s costumes in the beginning of The Women show her as secure, with very clean and nicely tailored looks,” Pflüg said. “As the show progresses, her looks become softer in silhouette as she is stripped of the security she once had. Towards the end of the play, her costumes are designed for her ‘big moment’ and thus are bold, beautiful, and graceful.”
Crystal is a different story. “Crystal’s looks are designed to emphasize her body, and this remains constant throughout the show,” Pflüg explained. “We explore how she has started off as a perfume saleswoman who later becomes the wife of a successful man. Her looks progress to be more luxurious as the show continues.”
As the plot develops, Mary and her socialite friends learn a secret about Crystal, and they plot to expose her, winning Stephen back for Mary. Throughout the play, scenes shift from Mary’s Park Avenue apartment to a beauty parlor, maternity ward, Reno resort, dressing rooms, powder rooms, and high society parties, and all with corresponding costume changes.
One of the most challenging for Pflüg is a spectacular evening gown for Mary’s friend Sylvia, the most fashion forward of the society ladies. “The evening gown has to help tell that part of the story,” Pflüg said. “I had a lot of fun designing Sylvia’s gown; I can’t wait for everyone to see it!”
Though set in the 1930s, the play is relevant today because of the characters and their relationships, Sardelli said. “I think every woman in the audience will see herself reflected somewhere on the stage,” she said, adding “there are clear moments in the play where men are receiving some helpful hints about how they might view and treat women.
“Clare Boothe Luce found a very fun way to educate the men in the audience about the lives of the women who surround them without preaching.”
A cast of 16 women from the sophomore, junior and senior classes of the School of Drama will present The Women at 7:30pm Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 25-27, and at 2pm. on Sunday, Feb. 28, in Freedman Theatre of Performance Place on the campus at 1533 South Main St. Tickets are $18 regular and $15 for students with valid ID, and are available HERE, or by calling the box office at 336/721-1945.