In 2007, Glenview spa Pascal Pour Elle sparked outrage by running a billboard that portrayed a scantily clad woman lying on the beach, her image labeled with “problem areas” that the business could help fix. It prompted angry phone calls and a petition calling for the sign's removal.
Evanston playwright Mia McCullough read about the controversy in the Chicago Tribune, and it caught her interest.
“I started asking some questions about it in my mind, wondering if the women who are involved in the protest are also customers at the spa,” McCullough said. “I was thinking these are people who know that 80 to 90 percent of their clientele are women. They’re probably not misogynists. I was wondering if the model knew how the photo is being used and how does she feel about it.”
McCullough, who teaches playwriting at Northwestern University, started thinking more about the characters involved, developing them in her head, until she realized she had the basis for a play.
“I had these characters suddenly answering all these questions that I had, and I thought I should write this down,” McCullough said. “If you don’t write down the voices in your head, then you’re just a crazy person.”
She began working on the play with Chicago’s Stage Left Theatre, first presenting it as The Face of a Ruined Woman in 2010 and talking with the audience to see how to improve it.
“I’ve struggled so much with the play,” McCullough said. “There are six different characters with six very different perspectives.”
Now titled Impenetrable, the play is making its world premiere at Chicago’s Theater Wit. While she struggled with her six characters and their monologues directed at the viewers, McCullough said they now help make the show’s issues relatable to a wider audience.
“The play deals with our own troubles with body image,” she said. “I think there’s a character for everyone to access the play. Because people feel their own feelings about themselves being voiced on the stage, they can then hear the other characters and take them more seriously.”
McCullough said the play’s message is especially important to young women, and recommends parents take along their middle school age and older daughters.
“I think women are built much more to focus on what we look like,” she said. “I think that while men do have issues on how they look and their body, girls can get so caught up in it.”
Writing about these issues made McCullough herself examine how they impact her personally.
“I think the play sort of creates a sense of self-consciousness in me that I didn’t realize,” she said. “I think it has made me very aware of how delicate a thing our self esteem is.”
Impenetrable runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays now through Oct. 7. Tickets are $25.