Stringing Along, in Fine Style

String of Pearls, presented by Santa Barbara Theater

At Center Stage Theater, Sunday, April 23. Shows through May 7.

Reviewed by Karen Leigh

Haul a fish out of a suburban river, gut it, and maybe, just maybe, a shiny pearl necklace — swallowed sometime during its upstream swim — will be nestled inside. This unlikely event is typical of String of Pearls, playwright Michelle Lowe’s valentine to the complexities of female relationships. Currently playing at Center Stage Theater, it’s the latest winning production of Santa Barbara Theater’s (SBT) inaugural season.

String of Pearls is comprised of interlocking stories, each of which centers on a relationship between women. There are best friends, one of whom is dying of cancer. There is a senile mother and her long-suffering adult daughter. There is a bored Manhattan housewife who is so lonely that she masquerades as poverty-stricken to be part of a group of underprivileged moms who have real fun. And there is a group of Illinois divorcées who gather monthly to toke, drink, and swim naked in Lake Michigan. These tales come together in a joyous warts-and-all celebration of womanhood which alternately saddens (as when the cancer victim succumbs) or makes one laugh (like when the stoned homemakers thumb their noses at a hot young policeman).

The evening is expertly staged by director Stephen Sachs, who relies on his actors’ fire to bring the play’s intriguing ladies to life. String’s staging is sparse, with the most decadent production aspect being a ’70s-era disco ball. This mounting relies on the strength of Lowe’s plot, and said storyline rises to the occasion. I could have lived without a reminiscing grandmother’s graphic description of kinky sex, even if it is with her husband. It’s an unnecessarily vulgar scene in what is otherwise a classy piece of theater.

Just four actresses embody the play’s many characters, and they are uniformly excellent. Well known on SoCal stages, Jacqueline Schultz, Stephanie Stearns, Alicia Wollerton, and Donna McRae are asked to play a score of women, young and old, rich and poor, happy and despondent, all in the course of one evening. Their energy propels String from its beginning montage (backed, in a fun touch, by staccato wedding music) to its emotional punch of a finale.

With a Producers’ Circle which includes Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg and Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint, SBT is quickly gaining notice down in Hollywood. Local theater buffs can only hope its entertaining, no-frills productions make it a staple of the Central Coast theater scene.

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