Jasper has a thing for feisty women of a certain age, especially when they periodically reunite to do some female bonding, and to recharge their collective vitality. The reunion going on at Workshop Theatre isn’t just the one we see on stage in The Dixie Swim Club, which opened to a packed and appreciative house this past Friday, but also the reunion of veteran director Cynthia Gilliam and some of Columbia's favorite actresses. Depicting four girls-only beach weekends stretching over several decades, Workshop's new production is strong on laughs and characterization, a little bit less so on depth and substance, but you enjoy the performances of the five leads so much, that's all that matters.
The script (by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, i.e., the team responsible for numerous down-home community/regional theatre favorites like the Dearly Beloved/Futrelle Family trilogy) introduces us to five gal pals who have kept their friendship going long after the heyday of their championship college swim team. Once a year, all spouses, children and telephones are banished, and the quintet meet at a beach house in the Outer Banks, with the expected results. The framework is part Same Time, Next Year, part Big Chill, with liberal doses of Designing Women and Steel Magnolias, but it works, thanks to excellent casting and direction.
Four of the five are recognizable types: Barbara Lowrance plays the flirtatious and often-married Lexie, Leigh Stephenson plays the former team captain Sheree, Andi Cooper plays the career woman Dinah, and Drucilla Brookshire plays the Southern-fried Vernadette. Tracy Rice has the biggest challenge as Jeri Neal, who reinvents herself several times in the course of the play. In the hands of less seasoned actresses, these roles could be quite stereotypical and derivative: Lexie is a more vulnerable version of Sex and the City's Samantha, attorney Dinah is basically Miranda, preppy and optimistic Sheree is a variation on Charlotte, while long-suffering yet wisecracking Vernadette is more like Roseanne's sitcom character. (That three fairly collegiate types would be this close to two fairly rural country girls is a bit of a stretch, but not overly distracting.) Likewise, the plot doesn't forge any new territory; you can pretty much guess in advance what sort of challenges five friends will face as they age from 44 to 77. There will be marriages and divorces, children and grandchildren, issues with careers and health, and ultimately, as with any group of friends, someone will be the first to pass on. I doubt I'm giving away any plot spoilers when I reveal that through it all, their friendship is the one rewarding constant on which they can depend. Thankfully, Gilliam has cast the right performers to make the evening a showcase for their acting skills.
A few weeks ago, I noted that many of the Midlands' finest performers from the past few decades were gathered together for Jim Thigpen's swan song at Trustus; just about everyone who missed out on being in that cast turns up here. (In fact, Gilliam directed a number of these actresses in a similar show, Ladies of the Alamo, several decades ago at Workshop, and the only Alamo alums not in this were onstage a mile away down at Trustus!) Top honors have to go to Brookshire, who takes what could have been a stock, down-home comic relief character and makes her believable, while getting some of the biggest laughs of the evening. While the storyline is fairly thin, the script is replete with classic, quotable one-liners, as when Vernadette declares that she "never knew true happiness until I got married, and then it was too late," or when Lexie reveals that she gave her ex "the thinnest years of my life." Actually, this is the sort of show where, believe it or not, references to divorce, infidelity, even early-stage dementia can become jokes. For me the tenderest moment was when Stephenson's eternally youthful ex-athlete breaks into tears not because of some tragedy, but upon realizing that she's going to be a grandmother. Another highlight (and a perfect audition piece or monologue for someone looking) is Vernadette's defiant and hilarious defense of biscuits, deep fat fryers, and the Southern way of life - this actually got a huge round of applause in the middle of the scene on opening night. All five play a tad younger than their actual age as the play begins, and define their progression through the years more with their voices and physicality than actual make-up (although Cherelle Guyton's wigs are extremely believable and help to define both age and personality.)
Randy Strange's ultra-realistic set is one of the best I can recall in recent years at Workshop. The show wisely avoids too many references to specific times or places (in fact, it could probably be done fairly well on a bare stage with a few chairs) but Strange has gone all-out, crafting a believable beach house setting. Something that I really admired was the detail lavished on a screened-in porch at stage left, which doesn't really figure into any plot elements, but makes for a familiar and credible feel. Chuck Sightler's sound design is subtle and effective, with passing noises (thunder, rain, a car horn) coming from the right direction, and often muted, not distracting from the dialogue. A minor quibble would be a lot of wasted space above the set, which could have been used for projected images of sand dunes and sea oats, or perhaps to suggest changing climate (clouds, storms, the sun, etc.)
In the program, Gilliam notes that this production is not great dramatic literature, but I'd say that she and the cast nevertheless give it their all, as if it were. The Dixie Swim Club, as above, is a showcase for the skills of its cast and director, and Columbians who have followed them over the years will enjoy seeing the team back together again. The Dixie Swim Club runs through Sat, Dec. 3rd; contact the Workshop Box Office at 799-6551 for ticket information.
~ August Krickel