Beauty, sophistication, elegance, sensuality... For the women who wear them, pearls can represent all these things and more. And when a few dozen of them are strung together and worn, they can also stand for class, bearing, and grace that - as the pearls themselves may appear as vanishing around the neck - seem to continue on forever.
Michele Lowe's new play at Primary Stages, String of Pearls, is in many ways as precious and glowing as its title suggests. It's a 90-minute jewel box of a show that examines the many loves and facets of women as both tiny, gleaming vignettes and in the fabric of a greater, more meaningful whole. Lowe does all this through the great theatrical tradition of simplicity: she chronicles many years in the existence of a single pearl necklace that - through accident, tradition, and circumstance - is passed through many different women's hands. (Yes, there's a touch of La Ronde here, but only a touch.)
The characters cover the world's social and economic spectrum, as if to gently remind us that certain desires, however modified by culture or class, are universal. But the attraction to the pearls is about the only thing most of the women have in common: Some are mothers, others are daughters, some are on the verge of death while others are just beginning to discover life. Yet they're all drawn together by the necklace, which alters their lives and perceptions as it makes its way around the globe.
Lowe's true accomplishment in the show is preventing this potentially treacly story from drowning in artificiality. Coincidence and irony play major roles in the story, and you essentially know from the show's first few minutes - when grandmother Beth (Ellen McLaughlin), talks about wanting to pass the long-missing necklace down to her granddaughter (Antoinette LaVecchia) - where the story will eventually lead. But Lowe's creativity, keen sense of character, and the show's fine cast - which is rounded out by Sharon Washington and Mary Testa - ensure that getting there will be, at the very least, an enjoyable ride.
As finely crafted as the play is, it's never unnecessarily complicated or overbearing. Lowe works hard to make the play emotionally accessible, and director Eric Simonson gives it just the light touch it needs in terms of its staging and its spark. (While hardly an energetic show, it moves at a gentle pace befitting its quiet, contemplative subject matter.) D.M. Wood's lighting is fine, and David Zinn's costumes - the titular necklace aside - are nothing special, but Loy Arcenas's simple set - a transparent floor covering a serene pool of water, a few sliding wall panels, and little else - effectively provides a variety of suggestive playing spaces, and always keeps the performer central.
He's aware - as Lowe and Simonson are - that the pearls themselves are far less interesting than the women wearing them. The show has been cast accordingly: The four actresses all complement each other and provide enough specialized personality to fill the stage with a whole host of memorable characters, such as a high-powered businesswoman, a poor and put-upon maid, an enterprising socialite, and many more. This is a tight, smart cast, and each woman proves integral to the experience of the show.
Special mention must be made of Testa, who's given opportunities to stretch herself that no one else is. She never sings, but fully utilizes the rest of her considerable performing chops, bringing a halting sensitivity and, when necessary, a razor-sharp comic sensibility to roles like a raucous Jewish mother and an austere ballet chaperone, vanishing almost completely into each. She even saves her best, most moving work for last, when she creates a generous soul and caring nature inside a gravedigger desperate for love.
Perhaps predictably, that woman finds what she's looking for. Not, however, where anyone expects it - including us. The eventual object of her affections is perhaps the warmest and most welcome surprise in String of Pearls, but it's far from the only one; all the women here discover themselves - and a great deal more - on the journeys they make. While the script could benefit from just a bit of sharpening, the scenes that constitute it - and the actresses who bring it to life - are already connected in myriad beautiful ways.