Brad Fraser's 5@50, on at the PAL Studio Theatre through next Saturday in a co-production between Ruby Slippers Theatre and Zee Zee Theatre, does something quite radical in the theatre world: it puts five women of a certain age front and centre on stage and lets them be as complex, flawed, vulgar and outsized in personality as any male character from a David Mamet play (back when Mamet was actually writing good plays). Exposing the other side--and the ugly underbelly--of Paul Feig's Bridesmaids, 5@50 throws out the representational rule book for professional women on stage. Some spectators may not recognize what they see, but that doesn't mean that women like these don't exist.
The premise of the play is simple. Five women who have known each other since high school gather over the course of a year to celebrate each of their milestone birthdays. First up is office manager Olivia, played with characteristic force by Deborah Williams. Olivia lives with her pediatrician girlfriend Norma (Beatrice Zeilinger), who has invited freelance journalist Tricia (an excellent Veena Sood), real estate agent Lorene (Diane Brown), and homemaker Fern (Donna Yamamoto) to surprise Olivia with a party. Even before Olivia arrives a significant amount of alcoholic beverages are consumed and profanities uttered, often in combination (typical line, from Tricia: "Who do I have to blow for a bourbon?"). However, when Olivia bursts through the door, already plastered, things ramp up considerably, culminating in Olivia puking all over Tricia. And that's just in the first ten minutes of the play! Deliriously but also assuredly paced by director Cameron Mackenzie, the play careens from there from one booze-soaked and emotionally overwrought scene to the next as Olivia's drinking spirals out of control and her friends debate what to do about it.
For, thematically, Fraser's play deals with a topic that we also don't see discussed very often in relation to women: addiction. Most obviously there is Olivia's alcoholism, for which her friends eventually stage an intervention, sending her to a treatment centre. But there is also Tricia's drug use, which includes pot, cocaine and prescription pain killers; the latter are for a serious back injury that she is hiding from her friends, but the fact that she has a dealer for the other stuff should also tell us something. Lorene is a serial bride, currently on husband number four and apparently happy to overlook the fact that he's gay if that means she doesn't have to think of the children from her previous marriages that she has abandoned, or the emotionally abusive mother who is stuck in a care facility. Fern is a compulsive exerciser, addicted to yoga, which is partly her way of dealing with the fact that for almost half as long as she's been married to her husband she's been carrying on an affair with a neighbour. And then there's Norma, whose habit happens to be Olivia; worried that her partner, once sober, might stop loving her, Norma enables Olivia's drinking and is actively opposed to the other friends' intervention.
It is with Norma's character (underplayed to the point of virtual indistinction by Zeilinger) that I have the most trouble in this work. Not only are we meant to believe that a middle-aged doctor is fine with a diet whose fat, cholesterol, and sugar levels would likely kill any fit and healthy twenty-year old, but we are also asked to accept that Norma would actively encourage Olivia to fall off the wagon in order to keep her. This leads to a denouement that splinters the quintet apart, though in the final scene--which includes a satisfying scenographic surprise involving the drapery that is the primary feature of Marina Szijarto's set design--there is hint that some of those fractures might eventually heal. And, upon reflection, the counter-intuitive logic of Norma that leads to this point might in fact hint at any added layer of depth to Fraser's play: that affection can itself be an addiction, with friendship in this case providing a safety net from other of life's travails, but in whose familiar routines might lurk other dangers.