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Bikini photo exposes ample issues in Mia McCullough’s ‘Impenetrable’

Kamal Hans Melanie Derleth Kyle Johns'Impenetrable' by Stage Left Theatre.

Kamal Hans, Melanie Derleth and Kyle Johnson in "Impenetrable" by Stage Left Theatre.

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When: Through Oct. 7

Where: Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets:


Info: (773) 975-8150;

Updated: April 20, 2013 1:08PM

Two different images of the same woman set up the essential tension in Chicago playwright Mia McCullough’s smart and spirited world premiere work, “Impenetrable,” now in a snappy production by Stage Left Theatre. And just which of these images you might find more emotionally loaded than the other — a shapely blonde in a bikini stretched out on a beach, or a woman wrapped in a hijab fully covering her hair and neck — probably says a great deal about your own background, personal experience, generation, politics and social outlook.

Yet that is only the starting point for the many questions McCullough raises in her fast-moving, 90-minute theatrical “essay” that deals with everything from sex and feminism, to religion and body image, and the mountain of stereotypes, contradictions and conundrums that buzz around such subjects.

“Impenetrable” was inspired by a 2007 newspaper story that chronicled the outraged response of some women in Glenview to a giant billboard advertisement for a salon and medical spa that featured a scantily clad beauty whose figure was ludicrously labeled with possible points of improvement. But McCullough has expanded the story in a multiplicity of ways.

Things are set in motion when Mourad (Kamal Hans, temperamentally ideal), the secular French-Algerian owner of a popular suburban salon and spa, sponsors a billboard ad much like the one described. He purchased the photo from a young photographer, Pete (the very appealing Kyle Johnson), whose model was Talya (a deftly unreadable and “impenetrable” Melanie Derleth), a pretty young woman he’d met years earlier in school but was never quite able to turn into a girlfriend. (He blames his failure on the fact that he is not “an alpha male.”)

Talya, never a practicing Muslim despite some Muslim heritage, had posed for Pete and apparently was paid a fee, but he never asked her approval for its billboard use. And now, in quite a radical turn of events (the reason should not be divulged here), she has taken to wearing the hijab, and she is surprised to suddenly see herself on display.

Meanwhile, the campaign to get rid of the billboard is spearheaded by Julie (Emi Clark is just right), a well-educated, looks-concerned, conflicted feminist who is the stay-at-home mom of an adorably nerdy and precocious daughter, Cari (11-year-old Kayla Rea is a hoot). The irony is that Julie not only patronizes Mourad’s salon, but is obsessed with all the same things the ad promises.

Observing all these events as they unfold is Andie (a funny and poignant Jennifer Pompa), the feisty, lonely, self-aware overweight woman of 35 who manages the local cafe.

No one in this play, which has been expertly directed by Greg Werstler (on Roger Wykes’ multi-purpose set), is perceived in quite the way they are perceived by others, or by themselves, or as they wish the world would perceive them. And McCullough smartly moves well beyond a riff on the eternal ache triggered by matters of youth, beauty and feminist values, to tap into a slew of other hot-button issues, none of which have easy answers.

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