Thursday, April 18, 2013
Theater review: Sherman Community Players put on a raucous romp in The Dixie Swim Club
You didn't know Sherman does great theater?
SHERMAN When entering the lobby of Finley Theater in downtown Sherman, one cannot help but feel at home. This is accomplished through the comfortable adornments, albums containing the Sherman Community Players' former productions, and prominently placed family portraits of the Finleys, the theater's benefactors. In fact, the theater is built on land provided by Lyndall Finley Wortham, a civic leader and benefactor who was born and raised in Sherman, and whose name is likely familiar to many in Houston, where the name Wortham adorns everything from the IMAX theater at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to a major theater center in downtown Houston, and the memorial theater on the University of Houston campus.
Given its benefactor and long history, it should come as no surprise that the Sherman Community Players knows how to put on a successful production, which is what they have done with their most recent offering, The Dixie Swim Club.
Authored by the iconic writing team of Jones Hope Wooten, as they are known, The Dixie Swim Club is a rollicking and touching romp into the lives of five Southern women whose friendship began years ago on their college swim team. Each year, they meet at a cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina to share their secrets, hopes, squabbles, and a hefty dose of irreverent Southern humor. The audience is given a front-row seat at some of these meetings where we watch the zany and sometimes heartbreaking story of these friends unfurl.
While many of the characters in Jones Hope Wooten offerings seem to be fairly stock, this particular ensemble of actors embellishes its performance with ingenuity and appreciable chemistry; they interact, move, and banter as naturally as any similar real-life posse.
Lisa Avila plays Dinah and adds just the right touch of acerbic wit to her portrayal of the jaded, hard-boiled, and barren attorney. Avila's Dinah comes across as a prudent and cautious sort, yet Avila's delivery of Dinah's wry jabs hints at a brooding darkness that her constant reliance on alcohol belies. Dinah is the base of the quintuplet, and Avila portrays this easily; she is strong and silent in the background, throwing out her sarcastic one-liners, yet concentrating exquisitely with a frown when any of the other women need assistance with a pragmatic matter.
She is the perfect foil for GayNell Doshier's Lexie, the self-indulgent, preening, serial collector of husbands. Doshier's performance begins a little stilted, yet matures sublimely by the end of the play. Doshier's Lexie pouts and prances about the stage but is still supremely likeable and always amusing. “Just because I'm vain doesn't mean I'm shallow,” Lexie quips at one point and indeed Doshier masterfully promotes Lexie's trifling nature while still (very rarely)showing the cracks in her perfectly-coiffed facade. At one point, it seems that Doshier's face is, in fact, a mask which leads artlessly to an extraordinarily touching and believable moment between Doshier and Avila's characters, and one that seems unimaginable between the two at most other moments during the play.
Donna Morgan's Vernadette, the magnet for bad luck, has a touch more trailer park to her than might be expected from a reading of the script alone, and is a touch more amusing because of it. Morgan is perhaps the most evidently expressive of the actors, her face pulling and twisting into grimaces and bewildered disbelief. Morgan is also easily the most carefree and impetuous, whether she is lolling on the sofa in a clown costume, wound up tightly and delivering an oration on the beauty of the biscuit, or galloping across the room to the bathroom.
While all of the actors provide a good many laughs throughout their characterizations, I found myself laughing most heartily at Vernadette's antics on-stage, and am particularly impressed at the way she captures the elderly shuffle when portraying a senile Vernadette at the age of 77.
Jessica Adams is most surprising as Jerry Neal, the lapsed nun who is suddenly forced to face an unfamiliar secular lifestyle when she decides to pursue her second “calling:" motherhood. Adams begins a touch overly-saccharine and wide-eyed but quickly relaxes. She is still wide-eyed but aptly captures the innocence, bewilderment and gentleness that lurk beneath Jerry Neal's docile exterior. She is also remarkably adept at simulating the restricted and bulky movement of pregnancy, and is very plausible when portraying the aged Jerry Neal; her tone is still sweet but a bit subdued, and her movements are still gentle yet slowed.
Rounding out the cast is Allison Minton as Sheree, the former over-achieving team captain turned over-achieving wife, mother, and organizer of the weekends. Sheree is a difficult role to play, as she has less overtly amusing moments, and spends more time as a brooding mother hen, both of her group of friends and of her own children. Minton pulls this role off admirably, however, with a particularly memorable expression of hurt incredulity occurring when she discovers that the other women have been throwing her lovingly-concocted healthy hors d'oeuvres out when her back is turned, and a particularly unexpected moment coming when, regardless of all of her perfection, she is physically bowled over, collapsing on the floor, at the thought of becoming a grandmother.
Costuming is so effective that I almost find myself wanting to include it in my description of the actors and characters. Costume Designer Nancy Cassady and Makeup Designer Megan McCullough skillfully entwine their work into the trajectory of the lives of the characters.
Dinah and Sheree maintain their style throughout the play and are the most consistent characters. Lexie and Vernadette shift styles according to mood and life experiences and are the most whimsical of the women. Finally, Jerry Neal's costuming reflects the many life changes she makes, moving from slightly frumpy maternity clothing to confused, almost adolescent garb when she is trying to coordinate her fashion and accessories for a job interview and, finally, to fashions that finally seem to fit her personality and age. It's almost as if we're watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon as she slowly finds herself.
All of the action is set within the cottage that the women rent each year, and I find that I assumed it was decorated according to Sheree's tastes, with perfectly-coordinated blue walls and sand-colored floors, glass blocks adorning the bar area, plenty of windows, driftwood accents, and a splashy dining table that seems to be made of the cement used on garden furniture. Set Designer Webster Crocker has created a very intimate area for the women's retreat, yet there are still distinctive areas that allow Director Anthony Nelson to display the women's shifting loyalties through their movement and changing onstage groupings.
Lighting blends nearly seamlessly with the set as the color of the sky through the cottage windows shifts according to time of day. The one detraction from this effect is a slight flickering of the “sunset” during the first scene. An inventive use of light occurs when the actors stand center stage and face the audience, appearing to look out over the ocean, and their faces seem to glow in the light from the window out of which they are gazing. Another occurs during scene changes, when dimmed lights allow the audience to see the stagehands performing a “dance” of choreographed movements as they change out, arrange the set, and change out props. While interesting, however, the changes do seem to drag somewhat.
Music choices during scene changes are representative of the play's subject matter, with Sister Sledge's “We Are Family” making a recurring appearance. Further, throughout the play, Sound Designer Jim Barnes’ effects successfully recreate the call of seagulls and the roar of a hurricane. His modulation of the sounds -— when a door is opening and closing for instance -— is precise, and the sound effects work with the action onstage for the most part. My only quibble is that during a quiet moment in the second act, the seagulls are momentarily overly obvious, and once noticed, become distracting.
The overall humor and warmth of The Dixie Swim Club's script and of its actors more than make up for any slight hitches, however. The Sherman Community Players deliver up a delightful romp that, despite its estrogen-abundant cast, should appeal to both women and men as these plucky, raucous women face down men and sex, marriage and divorce, and aging with the honesty and grace (or lack thereof) made possible by those who love one another unreservedly. Sherman may be a bit off the beaten path, but it is well worth the trip.
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