Five aging women are sitting on a bench — their outfits too skimpy, makeup too garish, heels too ridiculously high.
It’s easy to make snap judgments about the elderly working girls you meet at the beginning of Central Alberta Theatre’s The Oldest Profession, which opened this week in the Nickle Studio, upstairs at the Memorial Centre.
They talk too loud, act too alluring for their years, and bicker with each other and the younger hookers who are inching onto their turf.
But you can’t walk away from this Paula Vogel play, directed by Derek Olinek, and feel anything but compassion for the five women who face increasingly hard realities in their senior years.
This unexpectedly moving production strips away all artifice and shows that it ain’t easy getting old — especially when you trade on your looks, have no job security or pension to cushion your future.
These prostitutes in their 70s have been working together for half a century. Since the play takes place in the early 1980s, that would mean the “girls” got their start in New Orleans bordellos during the Prohibition years.
Now they are on the mean streets of New York City, faced with dwindling finances and a desperate need to expand their clientele — for if their octogenarian johns still can have sex, it certainly requires more time and effort.
As Lillian (played by Pam Snowden) reveals, she can’t “hop in and out of bed” like she used to, be- cause of arthritis.
“It’s a poor worker that blames his tools,” shoots back ever-acerbic Ursula, portrayed by Erna Soderberg.
The Oldest Profession is rife with such comic moments — as well as some affecting dramatic ones. But it takes a while to grow on an audience, partly because Vogel needlessly salts her first scene with various historic and political references — including the mention of various U.S. presidents — that mean little to a Canadian audience 30 to 40 years later.
Only in a round-about way does Vogel get to the heart of the play — which is the familial relationship between the women, including Rachelle McComb as Vera, Carla Falk as Edna, and Glorene Ellis as Mae, the Madam.
The five actresses similarly took a while to warm up to their roles on Thursday night (but maybe that happens when you’re dancing around in lingerie and feather boas!).
Eventually dimensional characters emerged that clearly had a mutual bond, and — especially in the case of Falk and McComb — revealed their humanity.
First-time director Olinek took some risks — first, by choosing a play with meatier themes than most CAT comedies and farces, and then by creating an alley-style stage with the audience sitting on both sides of the action. Both gambles paid off.
His actors must be credited for really putting themselves out there — especially during the burlesque numbers. No doubt their body language will get even freer as the run continues and their characters will really leap off the page.
The well-paced production also benefitted from a striking set and costumes, as well as lighting and sound designed respectively by Patrick Beagan and Melanie Rowe.
By the end, The Oldest Profession packs a rare kind of emotional punch. In the best tradition of theatre, it stretches viewpoints and messes with people’s preconceptions by showing life from another perspective.
The play goes to March 8 and is worth catching.