Delving into the impossible expectations of female beauty
Stage Left Theatre presents
Review by Catey Sullivan
In 2007, a 10 by 36-foot billboard went up on Willow Road in Glenview. The image – a gorgeous, scantily clad young woman pouting provocatively as she lounged on the beach – was superimposed with arrows pointing to “problem areas” in this idealized portrayal of the female body. Her thighs needed liposuction, the arrows proclaimed. Botox was required in order to eradicate crows’ feet. And by taking a laser to her face, the model could erase years of sun damage. Even the perfect woman, the massive sign indicated, would benefit from (thousands of dollars of) treatments at the Skin Deep Medical Spa. After protests from area residents, the billboard came down .
With Impenetrable, Mia McCullough insightfully explores the zeitgeist of a culture that makes such a billboard conceivable in the first place. The drama takes a long, hard look at a world steeped unto drowning in messages that tell women they need to inject the muscle-paralyzing botulism virus inches below their brains, endure the equivalent of taking a wood sander to their face, and be hooked up to hoses that suck out the “bad parts” of their bodies. It’s a culture that’s both violent and demeaning.
In a drama at once disturbing, insightful and unexpectedly humorous, McCullough examines the impact and the all-consuming ugliness of this culture, viewing it through the lens of women ranging from a stick-thin pre-teen to a fat (in her own words) barista whose perceived ugliness has caused her – while only in her early 30s – to give up on the hope of ever having children or a life-partner. Directed by Greg Werstler, Impenetrable provides an open-eyed view of a world where even supermodels have to be photoshopped in order to meet the impossible standards of beauty .
There’s plenty of studies out there proving that most women feel worse about themselves after thumbing through the pages of Vogue or the Victoria Secret catalogue. But despite the glut of images portraying impossible standards of beauty (or “aspirational standards” as the fashion industry euphemistically calls them) in the pages of the ladymags, time was when you could reasonably expect to avoid them while driving around town running errands. The billboard makes avoidance impossible, something that enrages the women of Impenetrable.
At the core of McCullough’s play is Talya (Melanie Derleth), the model who unwittingly posed for the billboard photo. Although she’s not a Muslim, Talya has recently taken to wearing a hijab, for reasons not made clear until the tail-end of the piece when she blurts out the shocking event that precipitated her decision to don the veil. That decision plays into Impenetrable’s complex discussion of the impossibly fine line between being admired for one’s beauty and being sexually harassed – or worse – for it. An early bloomer, Talya recalls how “men stopped being people and started being people who wanted something” when she was in her early teens. With the veil, she’s simply not as exposed – it is a piece of clothing that’s also a refuge of sorts.
Suburban mom Julie (Emi Clark), meanwhile, is coping (not well) with her transition from youthful hottie to asexual matron. (“Physical beauty is transient. You can’t trust it.) And then there’s barista Andie’s heart-wrenching mission that, forming a core of self-hatred, lurks like a black hole deep within her, a place where every cruel comment and body-snarking catcall of “fattie” festers indelibly. “Don’t you think (the billboard) is an assault on body image?” Julie asks Andie between sips of a skim no-whip hot chocolate. To which Andie responds with equal parts withering humor and tragic resignation: ”Life is an assault on my body image.”
There’s so much to Impenetrable that it’s difficult to do it justice. Men as well as women come under the microscope here: McCulllough digs far more than skin deep into the what drives Mourad (Kamal Hans), the Algerian spa owner responsible for the billboard. A similarly detailed probe gets into the heart and mind of Pete (Kyle Johnson), the photographer whose image of Tayla winds up on the controversial billboard.
Werstler elicits excellent performances from his cast – Derleth delivers a nuanced mix of strength and vulnerability; Pompa walks away with every scene she’s in, covering depths of hurt with defensive, self-deprecating humor. As Cari, 11-year-old Kayla Rae turns in a performance that ably captures the hidden pains and cruelties of childhood with the sort of innocent optimism and confidence that becomes sadly diminished as little girls grow up bombarded with messages about just how inadequate they are.
Julie, the well-to-do suburban mom, articulates the damage that can ensue in an environment where youth and beauty are the most valuable commodities a woman can possess. She’s worried, Julie plaintively states, that her daughter will be so consumed with weight and body image that she “won’t have enough room left in her brain to cure cancer.” She also addresses impact of the billboard has made on her own self-esteem: ”It’s the body I wish I had, and it’s still not good enough.”
There is no happily-ever-after in Impenetrable, not for Maroud, spa owner whose unfortunate advertising sparks a boycott, not for Julie whose own obsession with her looks is bound to rub off on her precocious daughter and not for Talya, unable to avoid the gigantic image of her own body marked up like a butcher’s carving diagram.
Impenetrable continues through October 7th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $25, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at StageLeftTheatre.com. (Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Johnny Knight (photos)
behind the scenes
Greg Werstler (director); Jason Crutchfield (stage manager); Kristin Toerpe (production manager); Roger Wykes (set design); John Kohn III* (lighting); Erica Griese (costumes); Anna Henson (projections); Adam Smith* (sound design); Lindsay Bartlett (dialect coach); Amy Szerlong (asst. director); Seam Studios (graphics); Johnny Knight (photos)
* denotes Stage Left ensemble member