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High fashion and snarky women

A classic comedy of manners at Harlequin

Photo from left, foreground: Teri Lee Thomas and Amanda Kemp, Kimberlee Wolfson in the background. Photo courtesy Harlequin Productions

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The Women by Clare Boothe Luce, now playing at Harlequin Productions, is a beautifully staged, lavish comedy of errors satirizing 1930s upper crust Manhattan socialites. It opened on Broadway in 1936 and is best known for the 1939 film starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell.

For its many stunning costumes paraded at Harlequin -- not only in scene after scene but in beautifully stylized runway-style walks and frozen poses as the stage slowly revolves during every scene change -- costume designer Darren Mills created 74 costumes plus a number of wigs for the 15 actors, all women, who combined play 36 characters. They are not all glamorous, because the women are not all high society dames. There are also maids and beauty parlor workers and salesgirls and other working women -- hardly fashionistas -- many of whom get some of the best lines, such as Paige Doyle who is terrifically down-to-earth and take-no-prisoners as a nurse. And then there are the society wannabees such as Amanda Kemp who is lovable and believable as Peggy, who wishes her husband made more money and who wants so much to become a mother.

Jess Weaver plays Mary, a.k.a. Mrs. Stephen Haines. Mary is a sweet woman who is the envy of all her friends. She is supposedly happily married with the perfect daughter (Hannah Seymore). Her friend Sylvia (Shannon Lee Clair, the only equity actor in the cast) says Mary is living in a fool's paradise, which proves to be true when someone lets it slip that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman, Crystal (Charlotte Darling), a gold-digging man-eater.

There is jealousy, there is intrigue, and there is an abundance of back-biting in this high-society world where the women accept that their husbands cheat because at least they support them in the manner to which they've become accustomed.

Weaver and Clair turn in commanding performances. Weaver is highly expressive and likable as Mary as she cycles through a myriad of emotions. Clair is suitably sultry and snooty and, despite that, likeable as the wise and self-confident Sylvia, a character more complex than appears on the surface, played with nuanced acting.

The plot is slow to develop in the first act, which goes on longer than perhaps it should, but the action becomes much livelier and more outrageously farcical in the second act, and develops into an over-the-top farce when Teri Lee Thomas as Countess/Miss Fordyce appears in a cowgirl costume. She draws by far the most laughs in this scene, which might be seen as too ridiculous by some.

Staging such a large production is a major challenge for director Erin Murray, who is to be commended for a job well done. Lighting by Olivia Burlingame is terrific. And, of course, the costumes are a dazzling spectacle to be seen.

Comedies about rich and snooty women gossiping and snipping at each other for two-and-a-half hours plus an intermission may not be everyone's cup of tea, and this one did drag along in places, but the production values and acting are as good as it gets.

The all-female cast is a mix of Harlequin veterans and first-timers, many of whom are Olympia locals and all of whom prove to have admirable acting skills.

THE WOMEN, 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Oct. 26, $35, $32 senior 60+/military, $20 student/youths younger than 25, $12-$15 rush tickets (half-hour prior to showtime), State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia, 360.786.0151,

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