In 1997, in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, Ill., residents could not miss a new 10-foot by 36-foot billboard ad for a local salon and spa. It depicted a glamorous, scantily clad model, with lines pointing to “problem” areas of her body that could be “fixed” by cosmetic procedures.
The local brouhaha over the ad inspired Mia McCullough’s thoughtfully engaging, lightly probing “Impenetrable,” which considers an identical situation from different perspectives. The play is receiving a local premiere at West of Lenin by SIS Productions.
The model in the photo, the photographer who made the picture, the housewife organizing opposition to an image she considers sexist and inappropriate, the salon owner — they all get their say, in this collage of monologues meant to express a community chorus.
“Impenetrable” is ever timely, given our age of youth-defying Botox injections, body sculpting and (literally) narrowing media standards of female beauty. In such books as Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” and Susan Faludi’s “Backlash,” feminist critics have decried the tyranny of holding women (but not men) to exacting standards of desirability, labeling it a form of oppression.
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Others argue that every culture has ranked certain physical proportions and attributes as attractive — at least since Helen of Troy’s face “launched a thousand ships.” But who sets those standards?
In trying to cover many bases and viewpoints, “Impenetrable” can be challenging to produce. The interconnected characters mostly say their pieces directly to the audience rather than to each other.
Director Charles Waxberg avoids a static mise-en-scène by inserting many points of contact and keeping the cast in motion on a spare set. The staging can get overly busy, and the acting is inconsistent. But few plays have frankly considered women’s and girls’ self-perceptions and insecurities, and “Impenetrable” also touches (less persuasively) on how men respond to them.
Most potent is the role of Talya (Ruth Yeo-Peterman), who is shocked to learn that an informal portrait of her taken by her photographer friend Pete (agreeable Shane Regan) has become a billboard and is causing a furor.
For Talya, being branded a beauty all her life has been more curse than blessing. In childhood, a jealous grandmother would yank out strands of her hair. In adulthood, her looks made her an object of desire, but also a target.
Yeo-Peterman conveys Talya’s fluid poise as well as the inner turmoil, and experiences that led her to claim her Muslim heritage and wear a hijab (headscarf). In Yeo-Peterman’s graceful hands, the somber, purposeful wrapping of that scarf is like a little ballet.
“Impenetrable” also focuses on stay-at-home mom Julie (Kathy Hsieh) and her bookworm middle-school daughter Cari (Sara Javkhlan).
Horrified by the ad, Julie rallies other women to remove an image she finds offensive to women and harmful to young girls. But what doesn’t come through keenly or pathetically enough in Hsieh’s overeager performance are the sharp ironies of a spa addict leading the charge against her own subliminal ideal of beauty.
The play needs Julie’s edge, even if she is an easy target for scorn. An obvious hypocrite fixated on preserving her youthful allure, she sends Javkhlan’s bright, patient Cari very mixed messages.
Her chief critic is the more likable Andie (Lisa Marie Nakamura), an acerbic Starbucks manager who views Julie and her ilk as overprivileged “anorexic zombies.” Andie has her own issues. She’s filled with self-loathing over being “fat” (compared to those suburban sylphs) and that self-branding torments and limits her.
“Impenetrable” is also sympathetic to the beleaguered Algerian salon director, Mourad, played by Erwin Galan as a gentle, caring soul perplexed by the furor and willing to have the ad removed.
Both Mourad and the genial, insecure Pete are almost too good to be true, especially the former. In the Glenview incident that inspired the play, the advertising salon iowner initially dug in his heels, refused to revoke the ad and told The Chicago Tribune, “I don’t want to sound like a chauvinistic pig, but this is a man’s world.”
Some of that toxic candor would have made this sensitive play less warm and fuzzy, and reflected an attitude that persists.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org