Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Theater review: The Dixie Swim Club at Mesquite Arts Center
The actors make us care, which is the key element in a play like this.
Perhaps more so than most genres of the theatre, I always look forward to seeing an all-female cast comedy-drama. Whether it's Steel Magnolias, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, or Lady House Blues, it feeds a voyeuristic curiosity most men have to see how their wives, girlfriends, or women in general might behave together behind closed doors away from the opposite sex. It is refreshing to find that the results are as varied as the selections listed above.
It traces 33 years of the lives of five Southern women who reunite every year at a summer cottage in North Carolina, starting in their mid-forties to their late seventies. They've known each other since their competitive swimming days in college at the YMCA when Dwight D. Eisenhower was first elected president.
The audience was treated to four key visits of these annual reunions: 1975, 1980, 1985, and 2008, but the years in between were weighted down with long video productions that offered a very informative yet too broad and abridged version of the cultures of the decades that these women have lived through. David Wilhite's slide show never managed to offer a flavor of the South that these women so clearly cultivate from, only offering glimpses of pop culture, fashion, and the revolving door of past U.S. presidents.
The intention seemed only to elevate the nostalgia factor for the audience, but the nostalgia was better presented through many of the lively performances of the characters on stage. Dinah Grayson is the power attorney that can never find time for a man. Lexie Richards is the divorcee that can never keep a man, having already gone through three husbands when we are first introduced to her.
There's also Vernadette Simms, a public school teacher whom can always share a horrible story of one of her two convict sons, that usually explains her current broken or injured (insert body part here). Sheree Hollinger is the constant for the group, the one that stayed behind at the YMCA and organizes and plans the annual gathering. In the first gathering they are all awaiting the last woman to arrive, Jeri Neal McFeeley who became a nun. She stumbles on to the scene eight and a half months pregnant, by way of artificial insemination, and certainly a nun no longer.
Each scene lasts long enough for the story to reveal at least one nugget of information or revelation about each of the five characters. It's as if the playwrights were working off of a checklist. Husbands come and go, child horror stories are told, grandbabies are born, and a medical diagnosis revealed. None of these plights would mean anything if the actresses portraying these women didn't do such a good job to make us care.
Some of the women achieved this feat to a greater degree than the others. Laura Warner played Dinah and she was the most natural of the lot. She never missed a bit of the quick repartee that was required of her as the sassiest of the bunch.
Ms. Warner, along with Sheresa Tuggle as Lexie, was the most believable in her age transitions. Only five years past between each of the first three scenes but they created characters that suggested the most personal growth.
Laura Jennings as Jeri was perfectly cast as the plucky nun. Though the character's nun days were short-lived, it was a halo that hung over the character, because of Ms. Jenning's charming, Pollyannaish and infectious spirit as the optimist of the group.
Carla Rene' Reasoner did a serviceable job playing mother hen to everyone as Sheree, but I wondered if Byron Holder, the director, didn't do her a disservice by not revising several lines that strongly suggest that the role was meant to be played by someone of different physicality. As critics of The Column, it is policy that we don't instruct the director what they should have done differently, but in this case I think that Ms. Reasoner's demeanor and nurturing force was so well-suited for Sheree that certain dialogue should have been omitted as not to distract from her very sincere and well-modulated performance.
Sheila D. Rose as Vernadette was quite the scene-stealer. Storming her first entrance as a woman with a small bladder, cementing another entrance with her maneuvering in an auspicious clown costume (the "why" explanation was priceless), and perfecting a rapid fire monologue about the Southern necessity of biscuits as part of a well-bred diet, Ms. Rose was a lively torpedo that offered the most fun and unexpected laughter. Her character's clown suit was rather poignant as her character had the least amount in her life to laugh about.
There is no mention of who did the actresses make-up and hair styles, so assume that they all did their own. Each one did an exceptional job with their own grooming, especially in the last scene as they are all in their late seventies and had very limited time to transition into their very convincing old age make-up.
The costumes were at times a mixed-bag with several costumes in the 1975 era that were a bit modern, especially Dinah's red pants suit. As the years progressed the costumes became increasingly more suitable.
The priceless, heartbreaking line of the last scene is spoken by Vernadette. At that time she is in her late seventies, suffering from dementia. She looks to her dear friends that she can't remember and asks, "Did I have a good life?" Jeri tells her that she had the best life as everyone agrees and nods approvingly the way that friends do when they knowingly lie to each other to make the other feel better.
Those are the tender moments that people hope to see when attending The Black Box MAC Actors' production of The Dixie Swim Club.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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