What: "The Women."
When: 8 p.m. today, Saturday, May 20-21, May 27-28; 7 p.m. Thursday and May 26; 2:30 p.m. May 22 and May 29.
Where: MainStage, Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 400 River St.
Admission: $10-$25 ($30 opening night).
When demure Mary Haines discovers her husband is cheating on her, she initiates a divorce. What happens next and how people react to it give the humorous and biting play that opens tonight on the Chattanooga Theatre Centre MainStage its panache.
"The Women," a 1936 Broadway hit by Clare Booth Luce and a 1939 film, has been reset to the 1960s and finds 19 women playing 44 roles. Though men are discussed in the story, no men are seen onstage.
"I've always been very attracted to the early pop, sort of premod period," said director Brother Ron Fender. "At that point in our history, women were just really starting to find their liberation. It's interesting to set the play in that cultural dawn."
While Haines and her circumstances provide the connection to the other women, the show is concerned with women from different social and economic classes and how they deal with each other, he said.
The characters include a Broadway star who has clawed her way to the top; spoiled, rich, elite women trying to figure out their lives; the mother and daughter of the soon-to-be-divorced wife; and maids, manicurists, salon girls and cooks with their own perspectives.
Fender said "The Women" is a "sort of great-grandmother" of modern television shows such as "Desperate Housewives," "Sex and the City" and "Real Housewives."
When the play was launched in the mid-1930s, he said, American theater was "fairly conventional and fairly stock." Luce, on the other hand, had her characters talk about divorce, sex and the tyranny and deviousness of women.
"I'm sure," he said, "it was for its day extremely shocking and extremely controversial."
Fender said the play is a comedy of language and a comedy of wit but also a comedy of slapstick.
"I've had to really encourage [the actresses] to let go and be goofy," he said. "I mean, this is Carol Burnett, this is Lucy [Lucille Ball]. It's very broad. It has vaudevillian kind of comic elements."