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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Last time I Wore A Dress

by Dolores Whiskeyman

At 13, Daphne Scholinski was a suburban tomboy with a troubled family history -- abandoned by her mother, at odds with her father, with a smart mouth and a fondness for wearing bluejeans. 

By the time she was 15, she was an inmate in a mental institution, diagnosed with "gender identity disorder". Therapy consisted of three years of "girly lessons" -- how to walk, sit, talk, dress, and flirt like an "appropriate female." When Scholinski's insurance ran out, so did the treatment, and she was discharged at 18, no more "appropriate" a female than when she went in. 

Scholinski's memoirs of that unhappy time form the basis of The Last Time I Wore a Dress,, adapted for the stage by Washington writer Emily Solomon from the book of the same name. The play, which opened Sept. 16, at Source Theatre, is a faithful -- almost too faithful -- adaptation, following Scholinski through three years in three different institutions and tracking her encounters with a parade of psychotics, schizophrenics, anorexics, and relentlessly dense medical personnel continually dumbfounded by her refusal to wear a dress. 

It is a disturbing piece -- part play, part performance art -- with Scholinski herself a silent presence on stage. A visual artist, she stands against the back wall of the set, painting as the story plays out. It's a gimmick, to be sure, but it also underscores the ultimate, positive message of the piece: Survival. Today, Scholinski lives and works in San Francisco. And with her solid frame and short-cropped hair, she is continually mistaken for a man. 

There is no question that Scholinski's story is a powerful one -- confronting our most comfortable assumptions about gender and femininity. What is an "appropriate female" after all? Throughout the play, Solomon continually puts that question before us as the young Daphne (Sarah Fox) is urged to wear makeup, put on dresses, flirt with boys (the boys being other mental patients), and deny her fundamental attraction to girls. And when she finally does put on a dress -- a flimsy hospital gown -- Daphne is as vulnerable as any appropriate female -- i.e., victim -- could hope to be. 

Dress is an off-night show playing in repertory with Closer, so director Delia Taylor must work on the other show's set. Nevertheless, she does a fine job of choreographing the multiple scenes that flow back and forth between Daphne recalling to Daphne reliving the overwhelming losses of her youth. Taylor also draws some powerful images, particularly at the end of the first act, when the two Daphnes seem, for a moment, to connect. 

Taylor is hampered, however, by an uneven cast and by the limitations of the script, which never breaks entirely free of narrative. Fox is affecting as Daphne, the vulnerable child, but as Daphne the raging and volatile adolescent, she is far less convincing. Likewise, most of the five other actors who play the parade of characters in her life are not able to pull off the multiple characterizations effectively. The exception is Paul McLane, a newcomer to watch. McLane creates his a unique physicality and vocal quality for each of his roles as Daphne's father, a security guard, and a series of doctors. But he also finds the emotional core of these individuals. 

If the cast is not quite up to the material, it finds no help in Solomon's treatment of it. By condensing three years of atrocities into two hours -- Solomon never gets past the horror of Scholinski's experiences to create an experience for the audience. She places Daphne at the center, narrating and dominating the action, but spends so little time with the other characters that it becomes impossible to invest in the relationships. Mother runs away, father is preoccupied, little sister graduates like a normal person, Daphne experiments with sex -- all of these milestones are marched past us -- but Solomon leaves it to Daphne to tell us what she is feeling and, by inference, what we should feel. 

And yet, the real Daphne's story is so compelling that Solomon's play holds us anyway, despite these distractions. Perhaps it cannot be said that The Last Time I Wore a Dress is a good play -- but I will argue that it is an important play, and one I recommend as genuinely confrontational theater. So much of what passes for theater of outrage is merely adolescent fare (witness Cherry Red's gross-out aesthetic in the guise of satire [a recent review linked below]). Here, Solomon presents a genuinely troubling truth about our culture. The lesson is bitter and clear: Femininity is as much a social construct as a biological one. What pleases the eye -- the male eye -- is deemed beautiful -- while that which fails to please, is locked away. 

CurtainUp's review of Cherry Red's Romeo and Juliatric
Adapted by Emily Solomon From the Memoir by Daphne Scholinski and Jane Meredith Adams 
Directed by Delia Taylor 
With Dan Brick, Sarah Fox, K. Clare Johnson, Paul McLane, Monica Palko, Russ Riggins and Daphne Scholinski
Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows 
Sound Design: Brian Keating 
Source Theatre Company, 1835 14th St., N.W. Telephone (202) 462-1073
Opened Sept. 16, 2000 Closes Oct. 10, 2000
Reviewed Sept. 20 by Dolores Whiskeyman, based on a Sept. 18 performance

ęCopyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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