Transylvania Mania at Workshop Theatre - a review of "Young Frankenstein" by Jillian Owens

youngfrank1 It seems appropriate that the last show ever to be performed by Workshop Theatre at their Gervais and Bull Street location would be Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. Emotions surrounding their move to 701 Whaley run high among the Columbia theatre community. Only something silly and fun will do for this occasion. Adapted from the 1974 film of the same name, Young Frankenstein tells the story of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fron-ken-steen”!), grandson to that other Frankenstein who terrorized the townsfolk of Transylvania with his monsters for decades.

Kyle Collins as Dr. Frankenstein - photo by Rob Sprankle

Frederick is summoned to Transylvania to claim his inheritance when his Grandfather dies. At first, he has no intention of “joining the family business” of creating monsters, but then he meets Igor (played by Frank Thompson), a masterless hunchbacked stooge who pronounces his name “Eye-gor,” and who softens his resolve in the song "Together Again (for the First Time."  A visit from the ghost of his dead grandfather (played by Hunter Boyle), and the temptation of taking on a sultry local by the name of Inga (played by Courtney Selwyn) as his lab assistant remove it altogether. With the assistance of Igor, Inga, and his horse-scaring housekeeper Frau Blucher (played by Elena Martinez-Vidal, he builds a monster that-- you guessed it--ends up terrorizing the village.

Elena Martinez as Frau Blucher ("Nee-e-e-e-igh!") - photo by Rob Sprankle

This is one of the best put-together casts I’ve seen. Kyle Collins is a delightfully neurotic Dr. Frankenstein, and Thompson is a brilliantly hilarious Igor. Vicky Saye Henderson delivers a standout performance as the Doctor’s madcap socialite fiancée, Elizabeth Benning, who is more than a bit frigid with the good doctor in the song "Please Don't Touch Me." Selwyn is an exciting and relatively new talent, having only one other production under her belt (the recent Ragtime at Trustus.) With impressive vocal chops and other…ahem…assets, she is perfectly cast as Inga, and I look forward to seeing her talent grow in future productions. Martinez-Vidal earned the most laughter as Frau Blucher, sometimes without havingto say a thing.  Jason Kinsey is perfectly cast as The Monster, and his “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number does not disappoint.

Courtney Selwyn as Inga - photo by Rob Sprankle

This is one of those rare Columbia productions that has somehow managed to capture the best of our local talent, and has showcased it fantastically well. Even the ensemble is comprised of actors and actresses whom I’m accustomed to seeing in lead roles. And I’ve never seen a show where the cast is so clearly having such a ridiculous amount of fun.

Frank Thompson as Igor - photo by Rob Sprankle

That’s what this show is. Pure fun. Well, not all that pure. There are plenty of bawdy jokes, songs (such as the song, “Deep Love,” which is referring to exactly what you think it’s referring to) , and silly sight gags. But this is nothing that would surprise anyone who’s ever seen a Mel Brooks film.

Young Frankenstein is a big show, both in cast size, and technically speaking. Randy Strange has done a phenomenal job with the challenging set requirements, most impressively in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. This is a bittersweet compliment, as this is to be Strange’s last show in his decades-long career-- but what a way to go out. What couldn’t possibly be built on such a small stage is created through the clever use of projections by Baxter Engle, also credited as Sound Designer for this show.

Director Chad Henderson, Choreographer Mandy Applegate, and Music Director Tom Beard have created a production that is truly a triple threat. Great direction, great choreography, and great musical talent have come together to make the last show on this stage something truly special.  Young Frankenstein runs though Saturday, May 24;  contact the box office at 803-799-6551, or visit for ticket information.


"Crimes of the Heart" - a review of the new show at Workshop Theatre

(L-R) Katie Mixon, Allison Allgood, Erin Huiett Tennessee Williams meets Steel Magnolias meets Charmed. That's how Crimes of the Heart might be pitched for a tv miniseries, as the power of three sisters reunited by family crisis enables them to navigate the murky swamp waters of Southern Gothic dysfunction. Beth Henley's dark comedy (or witty drama, depending on your perception) was all the rage in the early '80's, winning both the Pulitzer and the Critics' Circle Award for best play, receiving multiple nominations for Tony awards and Oscars (for its screen incarnation) and running for 535 performances on Broadway.  In ensuing years it has become a staple of regional and community theatre, due to its small cast, simple set, and easily-accessible-themes of love, loss, conflict and reconciliation among family members. These themes, being universal, have been addressed in other works before and since, and as a result, much of the material seems awfully familiar, but director Jocelyn Sanders has chosen a talented cast for her revival currently running at Workshop Theatre, and they ensure a spirited and lively evening of fun on stage.

The Magrath sisters can't get a break.  Their mother notoriously committed suicide when they were children, after their father abandoned them; the grandfather who raised them now clings to life in a hospital. Eldest sister Lenny (Allison Allgood) faces becoming a spinster as she turns 30 in small-town Mississippi in 1974, while free-spirited, scandalous middle sister Meg (Katie Mixon) is recovering from a failed show business career and a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Meg's return coincides with the arrest of youngest sister Babe (Erin Huiett) for the attempted murder of her abusive husband. As the play opens, we learn that even a beloved family horse was struck by lightning.  This all sounds pretty grim, yet most of the show plays like a situation comedy, as if Tennessee Williams had penned a terribly wicked episode of Designing Women. Lenny is a more functional version of The Glass Menagerie's Laura or Summer and Smoke's Alma, with Meg and Babe high-strung variations on Blanche Dubois.  (If in parallel time streams Blanche had either set out for California, or married a rich lawyer, only to give in to her penchant for young boytoys.)  Mixon portrays Meg fairly seriously, allowing the laughs to come naturally with the lines, while Allgood goes for a more comic interpretation, while nevertheless revealing assorted wounds and vulnerabilities.  Huiett faces the biggest challenge. In the notes I took during the performance, I see that at three different times I wrote "This is a woman on the edge."  Huiett employs an array of vocal mannerisms and affectations to convey a person repressing deep emotions, and some work better than others.  There's a detached, upwards lilt to much of her delivery, yet to me, it's indicative of her very tenuous grasp on stability.  Babe chooses each word very carefully, fearful that she may reveal too much about the shooting and what led up to it, and more fearful that recalling certain events may send her off the deep end.  It takes getting used to, but there is great power in her performance, especially in a riveting monologue midway through the show.  Huiett admirably sustains tremendous highs and lows over the course of more than two and a half hours. (There is only one intermission, in between Acts 2 and 3, so be forewarned.)

(L-R) Katie Mixon, Erin Huiett, Allison Allgood

Denise Pearman, George Dinsmore and Hans Boeschen (alternating in his role with Lee Williams) do good work as supporting characters; all function as plot devices to provide exposition, and to give one or more sisters a challenge or obstacle to overcome, yet each performer has some good bits. Dinsmore, as Meg's ex-boyfriend, becomes frustrated as he falls into familiar patterns of behavior; the actor flails his hand with unspoken emotion and powerlessness, giving a visual echo to the thoughts we know are within.  Pearman is the sisters' nosy neighbor/catty cousin, and perfectly captures the parochialism of a small-town "Ladies' League" member. (Interestingly, her hair is far more beautiful than her nature. Bless her heart.) Boeschen is growing as an actor, and is convincing as a rookie lawyer determined to save Babe from jail, while trying to resist his attraction to her. Although as Huiett observed in a tv interview promoting the show, good luck with that.

Director Jocelyn Sanders has successfully helmed a number of big-cast, big-budget musicals in recent years, but is back in her comfort zone of character-centric drama, with plenty of opportunity to focus on characterization, line readings and mannerisms.  At times the sisters, each histrionic and often hysterical, talk at once in rapid fire, but then Sanders will allow for a long and uncomfortable period of silence, to accentuate a particular emotion or realization. The entire cast does well with body language. Characters find themselves alone on stage, sometimes pacing frantically, or engaging in frenzied stage business, alternating with quiet and meaningful moments of reflection. The action takes place in the kitchen of the Magrath family home, with a finite number of places to locate the actors (a table, some chairs, the counter, a cot placed by a stairwell) yet Sanders keeps her cast moving rapidly yet naturally. She also creates some interesting stage pictures, as when Lenny, ostensibly the eldest and most grounded, rests her head in the lap of her younger - and ostensibly more troubled - sister, looking for comfort and reassurance.

Randy Strange's set is up to his usual level of excellence. A glimpse of a tree outside the kitchen window is well-lit by Barry Sparks's lighting design, which incorporates subtle shades of violet and blue to remind us of the time of day during different scenes. Baxter Engle's sound design incorporates a very believable ring for a busy kitchen telephone that thankfully sounds exactly as if it's ringing (instead of a sound effect coming from a speaker somewhere else.) I might add that on opening night the rings were timed perfectly, since nothing ruins a mood on stage like a phone still ringing after the actor has answered it.  Costumes by Alexis Doktor are.... well, I can't say attractive, so let's just say they are quite authentic for the 1974 setting, and are exactly what these characters would think are attractive.

Literary aficionados will surely catch hints and traces of everyone from Faulkner to Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, while theatre buffs will spot themes addressed in the plays above. Younger audience members will have seen similar plotlines in a dozen or more made-for-cable movies. Still Henley is working in a tradition, and her work, and in particular this work, has influenced a generation of successors and imitators.  Were this the miniseries I imagined above, there would also be preceding scenes focusing on the Magraths' childhood years, and a conclusion where we learn if Babe prevails in court, if Lenny finds a "fella," and if Meg can ever pull it together. Instead, the play ends in media res, with the assurance that the reunited family unit will somehow find the strength to prevail.  Which is almost disappointing, but I thought about the implications over the weekend, and realized the bigger message. As each parental figure leaves, the Magraths' lives slowly unravel, and each sister grabs at some possible escape. Had they stayed together, Babe might never have ended in a bad marriage, or at least might have found the strength to leave it sooner. Lenny seems quite confident and happy when her sisters are around.  Even Meg, who provides most of the liveliness that keeps the family unit going, might make fewer bad choices if she were secure in the knowledge that her (remaining) family loves her.  Indeed, the implication is that the power of three together is more than the sum of its parts. When the sisters laugh and giggle and gossip together, their problems seem smaller somehow, and easy to overcome.  None of that would succeed, however, without the talent of cast and director working in concert to bring out the nuances and themes within the text.

Whether by design or fortunate coincidence, Workshop is revisiting some of the more important plays of the last few decades this season, each representing a particular genre.  Last summer's Doctor Dolittle was a classic tale for small children, while Beehive was a musical revue featuring girl groups from the 60's. Sleuth was a male-centric, sophisticated comic thriller, and here Crimes of the Heart represents female-centric theatre that addresses....well.... affairs of the heart. Up next is a vintage but decidedly male-centric Neil Simon coming-of-age comedy, Biloxi Blues, and the season concludes with a wacky and broadly comic new musical straight from Broadway, Young Frankenstein. That's a nice and representative tour through the repertoire of modern theatre, and exactly what one expects from Workshop.

Crimes of the Heart runs through Sat. Jan. 25th, with a 3 PM matinee on Sunday the 19th.  Call the box office at 803-799-6551 for more information, or visit .


~ August Krickel

"Sleuth" at Workshop Theatre - a review by Jillian Owens



Would you like to play a game?

No no no! This isn’t the latest installment of a poorly-written body horror series. This is Sleuth, a mystery/thriller by Anthony Shaffer. The title made me think this play was  probably a just silly British farce of some sort. I hadn’t seen it, or either of its film versions (both starring Michael Caine.) Upon entering the theatre, I was warned that  “There will be at least one, and possibly more gunshots in this show.” by at least three  ushers.

"Spoilers,” I thought.

The show opens in the lavish country home of Andrew Wyke (played by Hunter Boyle), a successful writer of many mystery novels and a man obsessed with games.  He’s clever, and he knows it.  Games of strategy and wit are what he lives for.  Shaffer once said he based parts of this character on his friend, Stephen Sondheim, who also  shared a love of games.

Unfortunately, his wealth and intelligence aren’t enough to captivate his much younger  wife. She has left him for the handsome young Milo Tindle (played by the also  handsome Jason Stokes). Wyke invites Tindle to his home to presumably discuss the  details of his pending divorce from his wife.

(L-R) Hunter Boyle and Jason Stokes match wits in "Sleuth"

Sleuth surprised me in many ways. As I said, I didn’t expect this play to be much more than a witty farce. But it is much smarter than that. What begins as a situation comedy, with plenty of funny wit-matching and clever dialogue, becomes something far darker  and complex as the action unfolds. Wyke and Tindle aren’t the only ones playing  games here. This script was written to toy with the audience and their expectations as  well. Just when we’re comfortable and think we understand what this show is about,  Sleuth takes another turn - carefully placing its next piece.

Boyle and Stokes are well-cast in their roles as the jilted-but-proud novelist and the  young-but-not-so-dumb lover. It’s a tricky thing to go from quick banter to far scarier  places at the drop of a hat, but they do this fairly well. Their British accents aren’t bad, although a bit of Southern crept in every now and again. There were opportunities  where they could really brought out the more sinister moments of this play with even  more intensity, but I only saw this show on its opening night. With seasoned actors  such as these, I expect even more commanding performances as the show  progresses.

Randy Strange’s country manor set is impressive, with all the trappings of wealth  presented in a style you’d expect of Wyke. Alexis Doktor’s costumes are nicely done as well, although they seemed to lean towards the 1970 publication date of this play, rather  than the contemporary setting that is indicated by the use of a few modern bits of  technology throughout the show. There were a couple of technical glitches in the  performance I caught, but seeing Hunter Boyle play them off made me forgive thesesmall flukes.

I hope others aren’t put off like I almost was by what kind of play they assume Sleuth may be, because you really don’t know. Trust me. I would love to share more...but I’m afraid  that would just ruin the game.  The play runs through Sat. 11/23; call the box office for ticket information at 803-799-6551, or visit

~ Jillian Owens



Rockin' the Beehive - a review of "Beehive the 60's Musical" at Workshop Theatre by Melissa Swick Ellington

There are plenty of good reasons why Beehive - the 60's Musical has been brought back to the Workshop Theatre stage after a successful run fifteen years ago, and eight of them light up the performance with stunning vocals and infectious energy. Jocelyn Sanders and Daniel Gainey provide expert direction that shapes a fluid journey through 1960’s music, as the eight performers celebrate female singers and songwriters. While the first act presents a vivacious stroll through girl groups of the early sixties, the second half of the show really rocks the house with the rough, raw sounds of Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Janis Joplin. Medleys combine excerpts of familiar favorites through fictional characters, as in the extended party sequence that features “It’s My Party,” “I’m Sorry,” “You Don’t Own Me,” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” among others. beehive2

The Beehive ladies excel at inviting the audience into their world, as the performers handle the audience participation segments with friendly enthusiasm. Valdina Hall, a consummate musical theatre performer and a cast member in the first Beehive production at Workshop, launches the show with confidence. Her warmth and magnetism permeate the occasions when she addresses the audience directly, one of the show’s many strengths. (I enjoyed the good fortune of attending Beehive as the middle member of three generations of girls who love to sing. My mother observed, “When Valdina is on stage, you just feel like everything is going to be all right.”) Jordan Harper’s exquisite yearning and soaring vocals illuminate “Where the Boys Are” and “To Sir With Love,” while Tameshia Magwood thrills with her stirring rendition of “Proud Mary.” Devin Anderson is a true powerhouse who fires up the stage in “One Fine Day,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Respect.” The rest of the cast (Rayana Briggs, Roxanne Livingston, Brandi Smith, and Safiya Whitehead) brings versatile talent to a slew of musical numbers; the directors deserve commendation for insightful pairings of singers with songs.

The design team makes cohesive choices that support the production with efficiency and purpose. Randy Strange’s scenic design features dynamic visuals and useful levels, while Barry Sparks provides masterful lighting design. The placement of the excellent band onstage proves valuable, as the music (directed by Roland Haynes, Jr.) is front and center throughout the performance. The band’s presence also enables energizing interaction with the performers. Singers and musicians benefit from Baxter Engle’s effective sound design. Choreography by Barbara Howse-Diemer evokes the girl groups of the sixties, evolving through different movement styles as the decade progresses. Costume designer Alexis Doktor provides visual evidence of the decade’s social changes as the performers replace pastel florals with psychedelic miniskirts.  Expectation of impressive wigs and hairstyles comes with the territory in a show called Beehive, and this production does not disappoint. Bobby Craft’s expertise as stage manager keeps the energetic show running smoothly. Design elements work very well together; the lighting and choreography establish a definite shift in tone with “The Beat Goes On.” A few issues with clarity of spoken dialogue over band accompaniment early in the show and a couple of awkward transitions are minor quibbles in light of Beehive’s audience-pleasing power. My young daughter proclaimed upon leaving the theatre, “That was a great show!”

Beehive at Workshop Theatre delivers an entertaining showcase of 1960’s music through the considerable talents of eight versatile and hard-working performers. Beehive earned great buzz from responsive audiences on opening weekend and deserves to pack the house with sixties music lovers through the remaining performances. Be assured that this production is not a series of imitations of the original singers. These Beehive performers make unique contributions to create something that is at once both nostalgic and new.

Beehive the 60's Musical  continues at Workshop Theatre through Saturday, September 28, with curtain at 8 PM, except for a 3:00 PM Sunday matinee on September 22. Contact the Workshop Theatre Box Office at 803-799-4876 for ticket information, or visit

~ Melissa Swick Ellington


Jasper   welcomes a new critic to our theatre team.  Melissa Swick Ellington earned a Ph.D. in Educational Theatre from New York University. She has directed or performed in numerous productions in professional, community, and educational theatres in New York and South Carolina. She taught theatre in K-12 and university settings for over a dozen years.

Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" at Workshop Theatre - a review

Eugene Jerome is a dreamer, spinning baseball playoff fantasies in which he is both star and announcer. These dreams alternate with visions of being a writer, wishesthat his family might occasionally cut him some slack, and most importantly, wishes of seeing a girl naked.  Any girl, even if it's his nubile cousin Nora, staying with the Jeromes along with her mother and little sister after her father's death. In other words, Eugene is a 15-year-old boy, and the alter-ego for author Neil Simon, whose acclaimed Brighton Beach Memoirs is very loosely based on his own life.

In Workshop Theatre’s new production of this classic, both Jared Kemmerling, as Eugene, and Connor Odom, as older brother Stanley, are playing about two years above their own age, but capture the essences of their characters perfectly. As narrator, Kemmerling addresses the audience directly, setting up assorted family issues that take place over a week in September of 1937, as seen from the highly subjective point of view of a bright but smart-aleck teenager, who just happens to have the most successful comedy writer of the 20th century providing his dialogue.  These interactions play out, with Eugene often adding a running commentary along the way via asides to the audience. The role of Eugene made a star of Matthew Broderick on Broadway and earned him a Tony, and Broderick has to some extent been playing the same impish wisecracker who talks to the audience ever since.  Kemmerling really has good timing and stage presence, especially for such a young actor, and Odom's age actually works, giving him the impression of being a baby-faced young adult, which explains some of his struggles to make decisions and be taken seriously as a man, not a boy.

I must confess that it's hard for me to be completely impartial here since I know these folks so well.  No, not the actors, although I've met a few of the older cast members in passing a few times, but rather the characters, as some 22 years ago I played older brother Stanley in a local production of Simon's sequel to this play.  For me the most moving moments here were the natural interaction between the two brothers, and Stanley's frank discussions with his father about what it means to be an adult, but take that with a grain of salt.

The beauty of this show (and what brought it so much acclaim in the 80's) was that it marked a change in tone for Simon, who had already been mining his own life experiences for material for years. (If you ever want to see two brothers, one naive and one worldly, as swinging bachelors in New York, check out Simon's very first play, Come Blow Your Horn; if you're curious about how one copes after divorce, see The Odd Couple, or for how the other copes after the death of a spouse, see Chapter Two.) Here Simon takes his ear for dialogue and ability to portray the range of ordinary human emotions, and allows them to flow naturally for entire

scenes, without significant punch lines, until Eugene pops in at the end to sum everything up from the viewpoint of both the sarcastic kid, and the mature writer's memory.  Upstairs, the brothers engage in frank, and hilarious, discussion of the mechanics of puberty that wouldn't be out of place in American Pie or Portnoy's Complaint.  Downstairs, it's close to Tennessee Williams territory as the adults wrestle with problems that threaten to tear the family apart. Perhaps in the greater scope of things they don't have it so bad: Dad risks his health by working multiple jobs to support his family in the middle of the Depression, widow Blanche imagines herself as unemployable, unattractive, and a burden to her sister, hot cousin Nora and little sister Laurie feel neglected and under-valued by their still-grieving mom, and Stanley makes some unwise decisions at work.  So, pretty much any family anywhere, but Simon's genius allows us to see how intensely routine domestic conflicts can affect those involved. There is no perfect resolution; instead, forgiveness, acceptance, compromise, the occasional white lie, and the lost art of actually talking things out provide a fragile peace, until the next mini-crisis arises.

Samantha Elkins, as Blanche, and Lou Warth, as mom Kate, are best at capturing the

sound and tone of Jewish Brooklyn residents, but Kemmerling was getting there even as the opening night performance progressed. The pale blonde Warth has gone brunette, while the striking Elkins (who stepped into this role only two and a half weeks before opening) dons glasses, pins her hair back, and drops her voice by an octave or so to play much older than her own age. Both are quite believable, and do some good dramatic work in a deeply hurtful argument over virtually nothing.  Their best moment together comes as both draw inward, their backs turned as they fight back tears, unable to express how shocked and sad each is to have turned on her sister. Father Jack (Hunter Boyle) is a long-suffering mensch who accepts his mandatory role as head of the family in any number of "just wait 'til your father gets home" scenarios, but prefers to offer his modest wisdom as reasonable advice. Boyle is an accomplished, veteran actor who has distinguished himself when cast against type, especially as a sympathetic Juan Peron a few years ago in Evita. Here, sadly he is simply the wrong actor for the role, and isn't particularly believable. Fortunately, he delivers his lines with good timing and clarity, allowing his partners on stage to shine in their scenes. The miscasting doesn't really hurt the play much at all, but it doesn't help anything either.  Allie Stubbs and Catherine Davenport alternate as Nora; I saw the latter on opening night, and she and Kimberly Hubbard (as Laurie) have some good moments on stage, together and with others, but I must warn all of the younger cast members: as a former Stanley, I can attest that the upstairs level of the set will swallow your lines, so project as you have never projected before!

Speaking of that upstairs level, Randy Strange's set design is practical: a completely realistic rectangular box with the fourth wall removed would be boring, and would pose sightline difficulties for audiences on each side of center. Instead, the home's living and dining room areas are opened out, giving the actors plenty of space in which to move, and the upstairs bedrooms are angled and situated to be as close to the audience as possible. (But a few extra mikes up there still couldn't hurt.)  Director David Britt successfully helps his cast to navigate the fine line between comedy and drama which the characters cross and recross so often. Still, with the name Neil Simon attached, a fair number of potential audience members are likely to be convinced that this is hokey, sit-com style family fluff, which it isn't. Likewise, others may be taken aback by the blunt discussions of sexuality, some salty language, and a few stretches of fairly dark conflict, which are no worse than anything on, say, Mad Men, but just be advised. Ultimately this is one of the most beloved and praised works from one of the biggest comic playwrights of the last 60 years, performed capably by some good local actors, in an enjoyable community theatre context. Brighton Beach Memoirs run through Sat. Jan. 26th; contact the Workshop box office at 799-6551 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Workshop Theatre - a review by August Krickel

Shattered survivors struggle over scraps of nourishment in a barren, apocalyptic wasteland in Workshop Theatre's new production of Edward Albee's classic play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  At least, it seems that way, as we spend a few desperate hours in the alcohol-fueled, vitriol-filled lives of a seriously disturbed, and disturbing, married couple, George and Martha. Audiences eager to experience Albee's dark fable with no holds barred will undoubtedly get their money's worth and then some, thanks to brilliant characterizations by a committed cast. Metaphors notwithstanding, the set-up for Who's Afraid is deceptively simple: two academic couples drink, carouse, and argue into the wee hours of the morning. Martha drunkenly and shrewishly criticizes George's shortcomings as a husband, a professor, and a man; he returns fire with wry, catty observations on said drunken shrewishness. Like rival boxers engaged in a harmless exhibition bout, often one or the other can't resist sneaking in a sucker punch or two. Neither really knows where to draw the line, but a bizarre game/deception has enabled the marital battle to rage on for 23 years. Like many, I read this play many years ago, and saw the Burton-Taylor film version, but I had forgotten how devastatingly witty the dialogue is. Elena Martinez-Vidal portrays Martha as an aging Snookie, the once-scandalous college president's daughter, now using booze and random affairs to carry her through a seemingly unhappy marriage. For Martha, it's far easier to get laughs from a clever play on the author Woolf's name and the nursery rhyme, than to actually discuss (or understand) Woolf's work.  Stann Gwynn as George wears a natty, professorial blazer, but sinks his hands deep into its pockets as if it were an old sweater, indicating general despair. Oddly, however, he is verbally clever and quick, nimbly playing with words, images and ideas; if this brilliant man's career has stalled, one wonders how responsible his drunken wife may have been in the squashing his ambitions. Both leads are at the top of their acting game, utterly believable as these amusing yet unlikeable characters.

Lee Williams and Giulia Marie Dalbec play a younger couple, labeled Nick and Honey in the program, although Nick is never referred to by name, and only he ever calls to his wife, as "honey."  Dalbec is either offstage or passed out (or both) for almost half of the play, but does a great job in a radically different role for her, playing mousy rather than the usual vivacious. During long stretches while others are speaking, she is always completely in character, busy with countless, unobtrusive little bits of business that make perfect sense.  It would be very easy to say that Williams seems awkward and self-conscious... except that Nick the character is supposed to be seen that way.  One could add that he is at times overwhelmed by the forceful personalities of the two leads...yet again, the character is written that way. Albee never gives Nick the lines to establish him as a scholar or scientist; in fact, in many ways he seems to be a younger, blander, incomplete version of George himself, with modest career goals, a wife who can't hold her liquor, a wealthy and larger-than-life father-in-law, and unspoken issues in his past. (The Trekkie in me wants Nick and Honey to be George and Martha from some alternate universe, visiting via a temporal flux, but no such luck.) Overall, Williams does his best with a difficult role.

I might have wanted to see a deeper debate on science vs. history or philosophy, but Albee is working in a different direction entirely, as the couples spend a solid two and a half hours (plus intermissions) seemingly fighting over nothing.  There's a central (and famous) plot twist that I won't reveal here, but in retrospect, it seems telegraphed from early in the first act, but I'm uncertain how newcomers to the show will perceive it.  Martha tells George that he doesn't know the difference between truth and illusion, to which he replies "No, but we must carry on as though we did."  In interviews, the playwright has professed a desire to aggressively engage the audience in the business of understanding the material, and accordingly we have to fill in many of the blanks and connect the dots for George and Martha's backstory and motivations. Only at the very end do we glimpse the actual affection and co-dependency shared by the couple, which then explains much of the dysfunctional fiction they have created, but audiences, scholars and critics have spent the last half century debating just how believable and effective that may be, from a literary standpoint. From a dramatic standpoint, it's quite moving.

Director Cynthia Gilliam allows the fast and furious dialogue to proceed naturally, never missing any of the many laugh lines that pepper the dark material.  I was surprised at how fresh and contemporary the 50-year-old script seemed, with just the tiniest hint of the Mad Men era, before certain modern expressions became common.  Costumes (by Janet Kile) are authentic, and yet could be worn today; a couple of random references to the Depression and World War 2 are the only things to indicate the setting. Towards the show's conclusion, George recites part of a Latin requiem, while Martha recounts an often-told story. Gilliam cleverly takes advantage of Gwynn's rich voice and has him actually sing the words, giving the moment a haunting beauty that is not otherwise found in the original.  Randy Strange's set accurately depicts an ordinary, upper-middle class living room, but I must praise whoever dressed the set (I'm guessing Meg Richards, credited for props.) Among all the customary suburban bric-a-brac are two framed photos, and sure enough, they are youthful portraits of Gwynn and Martinez-Vidal.

The ultimate question becomes: did I enjoy the play?  My answer is that I thoroughly enjoyed and admired the performances by the cast, and the new insights gained into the material via the director's vision.  I’d really question someone who actually enjoys Albee, much as one might admire the first ten minutes of Saving Pvt. Ryan, but not technically enjoy them.  Albee is one of the giants of contemporary theatre, and undeniably a genius, although possibly a mad genius. Joe Six-Pack who might otherwise be watching WWE Raw will likely not appreciate this work (although it features similar smackdowns and trash-talking!)  Any literate adults with backgrounds or interests in literature, sociology or psychology, and who want to see challenging themes acted out live by gifted performers, need to see this production.  With only seven performances left in a 199-seat theatre, there's no excuse for there not to be standing room only.  The show runs through Sat. Nov. 24th, i.e. the Saturday after Thanksgiving, contact the Workshop Box Office at 803-799-6551, or visit for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

The Men Behind the Curtain

{The current issue, #6, of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts, features a number of profiles of people who work behind the scenes - costumers, lighting designers, board members, and more. We are pleased to offer you this online extra, an expanded version of the piece focusing on Danny Harrington, Randy Strange and Albert Little, backstage craftsmen extraordinaire.} ___________________________________________________________

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," Oz told Dorothy.  Yet through smoke, mirrors, rigging and a little moxie, that wonderful Wizard managed to rule an entire land, keep wicked witches at bay, and hoodwink an entire population. If acting is believing, stagecraft might well be deception, and a well-designed set with effective lighting makes all the difference in the world.  Jasper talked with three of those men behind the curtain, to find out how it all comes together.

Danny Harrington remembers his mother being involved in theatre on military bases, and after the family settled in Fayetteville, NC, he acted at school, and at the Ft. Bragg Playhouse.  "The two things that interested me in high school were drama, and soccer," Harrington recalls; at Methodist University, he made first string for the soccer team, but a series of away games caused theatre to win out.  “At a small liberal arts school you do it all, acting as well as design,” Harrington says.  His scholarship required him to work on all shows, and he experienced a hectic senior year as tech director for one class, while stage managing the same show for another.  Summer jobs through the Southeastern Theatre Conference pointed to  technical work as viable career option, and he fondly describes the day after junior year when he officially quit Domino's, since when he has always been able to make his living through theatre.

After a year of graduate school in scenography at UNC-Greensboro, he knew he had a talent for design, but experienced some burn-out. By now he had met his future wife Jamie, who was working on a national children’s theatre tour, and the two began looking for projects where they could work together. Summer stock, regional theatres, and other opportunities took them to Ohio, Louisiana, Virginia, and finally Columbia, where Harrington is the Technical Director for the nation’s longest-running community theatre organization, Town Theatre.  He notes that in this field, "you have to be willing to move anywhere; it’s all about supply and demand." Additionally, he has designed sets for Trustus, Columbia Children's Theatre, and the Chapin Theatre Company.

Harrington thinks people would be amazed if they saw "how backstage is way more complicated...or way simpler than they realized," noting that it's all about illusion, and that amazing effects can be accomplished solely by inventive lighting.   Sometimes he will follow a production's original design from Broadway, but the internet makes research on alternate choices easy, and for the upcoming Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Harrington is creating something very different of his own.  He enjoys challenges, mentioning Something's Afoot, where he got to kill off cast members one by one via set pieces - falling chandeliers, exploding staircases, etc.  He also had fun with the special effects for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, working out the logistics of a flying car.

He has been pleasantly surprised at the core group of backstage volunteers, many quite young, that he has developed. Half a dozen or more work on set construction, and as many as a dozen alternate on the running crew for a show (where he often feels like a choreographer himself, coordinating everyone's movements.) Sometimes a father and son may be hanging around the theatre while a mother a daughter are rehearsing ; they see the lumber and tools in the shop, and ask how they can help. Others come from summer theatre camps that he and his wife teach, where they learn the camaraderie that develops among a backstage crew.  One such student, now heading into high school, has been with him a number of summers, and Harrington has been able to train him, entrusting him with more responsibility each year.

Harrington gives the play selection committee crucial input on the feasibility of specific productions and effects, although one imagines that his enthusiasm and gee-whiz attitude might lead him to say "I think we can make that work" to just about anything. He seeks the director's input at least 4-6 weeks in advance, if not earlier, then always fashions  a 1/4 inch model. He tries to make every set as solid as possible, capping platforms with Masonite instead of just raw plywood; he appreciated one actor, an architect by profession, complimenting him on how safe and actor-friendly a particular structure was.  Extra hands are always needed, but what  he could really use right now is some expertise with welding, launching into a complex description of a hydraulic lift for an entrance through a trap door in Joseph.  There's no question that the possibilities of new technology fascinate him, and he adds that he's experimenting more with projection and film effects.  Still a relative newcomer to the Midlands, Harrington remains impressed at the level of support for the performing arts in Columbia, and that even in a tough economy, everyone locally is staying afloat.


Workshop Theatre's Technical Director, Randy Strange, grew up in Columbia, attending A.C. Flora, and dabbling a little in theatre - he remembers playing a "man in a white toga" in Julius Caesar.  Intending a career in commercial art, Strange spent two years on an art scholarship at USC. While excelling in his art classes, Strange was distracted from academics by the rest of college life, and within a week of leaving school, "Uncle Sam came calling."  Strange served two years in Viet Nam as a technical maintenance inspector for Chinook helicopters.  He considered a military career, and had qualified for pilot school, but would have had to train "in-country," and opted to return home, working at Southern Bell as a maintenance administrator for field personnel.  When Bell added its own graphic art division, he made the transition.   He is especially proud of a number of telephone directory covers, and portraits that he designed for the African American History calendars and promotional materials.  After 32 years with Bell, his department shut down during a period of downsizing, and Strange opted for early retirement.  By then he was heavily involved as a theatre volunteer, however; a chance meeting at a party in 1975 with Town Theatre's Technical Director Walter O’Rourke led to an offer to put Strange's creative skills to work on set design and construction.  When O’Rourke moved over to Workshop in the '80's, Strange followed, and has been there ever since - 37 years of community theatre in all, and almost 200 sets he has designed.  He and O'Rourke would split up duties, one designing, the other "figuring out how to make it look real on stage." Strange remembers that "Walter always griped that he'd be working until the day he died," and when O’Rourke passed away unexpectedly, in 2007, the Workshop board offered Strange the job,  which he feels "Walter would have wanted, and I think he had been grooming me for that all along."

Like Harrington, Strange advises on play selection, and meets with each director.  His sets often feature intricate detail and subtle touches that silently but clearly define a particular location or moment in time.  He is likewise detailed in person, soft-spoken, already anticipating components that will be needed in six weeks, and fretting over 17 scenes in the first act of next fall's Legally Blonde.  Strange  doesn't mind the challenge, but always worries that scene changes may slow down the pace of a show.  He tries whenever possible to reduce the scope and complexity of a set.  "It has to be actor-proof," he grins.  "If there's a way of breaking it, they will."  He too suspects that viewers may have no idea how tiny the available space may be.  "I think we pull miracles off quite often,"  he says.  "The fun aspect of theatre is that you meet a lot of wonderful people.  This wonderful artistic outlet has kept me out of trouble - for the most part - and is very rewarding,” especially when the hard work of so many people comes together just in time.

He sees theatre, and volunteering, as "something that can hook you, and that you develop a passion for." At first he was the youngster, working with most of Workshop's original founders, but now he's the veteran:  "There's a whole new world of opportunity, to meet a variety of friends that you'd have never met in any other venue, much younger people you wouldn’t meet in a normal job." The biggest thing he needs currently is some strong young bodies to help with actual construction. Students from USC and from youth theatre classes have been traditional sources, but currently Strange doesn't see as much passion among performers who in years past might have come out for auditions, then stayed to help build the set. "There are so many avenues of entertainment in Columbia, that theatre sometimes suffers," and there's great competition with other venues for talent and manpower backstage. Harrington agrees, finding that ironic, given that theatre in fact can combine many art forms: music, dance, performance and visual art simultaneously. Strange can round up 4-6 volunteers in a pinch, but often it's just him and one or two of the "hard core." "Thank God we have the Alberts of the world," he concludes.

Albert is of course longtime Workshop volunteer Albert Little.   When Little joins the conversation, an impromptu cast party of two breaks out, as both men rib each other, reminiscing over old shows, old stories, and old pranks played.  "That was Walter," Strange interjects.  “I would tell them they would burn in hell," Little teases. "We worked hard, and had lots of fun along the way,” even if that meant painting the floor at midnight in advance of opening night. Referring to O’Rourke, but by transference Strange too, Little acknowledges that "he wanted me to grow as a technician, and a carpenter.  Walter would always take suggestions; they would let you try to build something on your own. Whenever I was ready, they'd teach me more,” even if he ended up wearing more paint than made it to the wall.  During Into the Woods, foliage moved rapidly on and off stage, flying in and out, and Little appreciated the free rein he was given to do rigging some 25 feet in the air, a much-needed niche he has continued to fill.

Like Harrington, Little grew up in a military family that eventually settled in Sumter, SC.  Three of his school band directors were involved in the Sumter Little Theatre; soon after graduation, he saw a couple of productions there, and felt compelled to get involved.  "I had seen movies...and knew that it takes numerous shots.  Unlike film, live theatre is right there in your face, and that intrigued the hell out of me: making the best out of you never know what. Someone could trip, or forget an entrance, and I said 'I’ve got to be a part of this.'“

After a year at USC-Sumter, he drove a milk truck for Sumter Dairy, and volunteering onstage and behind the scenes became his passion. A move to Columbia with a partner, who was working on an MFA, led to backstage work, "or occasionally filling in as a spear carrier" at USC. Little drifted among assorted temp assignments and odd jobs (including, like Harrington, a stint delivering for Domino's)  before landing a job as a driver for the city Sanitation Dept.  After his partner moved to California, Little recalls that "I was lost.  The itch was driving me crazy," and he knew "I have GOT to do more theatre."  As soon as his work schedule with the city became stable, he showed up at Workshop.  Connections made there led to a job for 11 years as a runner at Chernoff-Silver, and now Little works for the Richland County Dept. of Public Works as an Engineering Technician for Storm Water Management. "My life is a happy accident," he concedes. “They made it fun - they are my best and longest lasting friends,"  Little says of his theatre colleagues. "When I came to Columbia, it scared the shit out of me," he laughs, discussing with Strange the wealth of talent found locally.  "We are blessed to have so many people, who are willing to give so much time."

Little offers a possible explanation:  in countless little rural towns in the state, there are a few artistic types who have greater aspirations. " Smaller communities may place a stigma on creativity - you know, 'that child just ain't' right,' " he jokes. "So kids move here, to a bigger town, and explore different possibilities with regard to the arts.  Columbia became a really great mecca, where you can see opportunity.  It’s a magnet for people to migrate here, and show off their wares.  They may not want to move to New York or even Atlanta, so they will come to Columbia, to see what works out for them. "   It becomes quite clear that Little isn't talking about just theatre volunteers, or even artists in general, but also about himself, and about finding oneself in ways beyond just a hobby.  It’s an unexpectedly moving and profound moment, as he describes that yearning that so many young people in creative fields experience.

Harrington, Strange and Little all turned to theatre as a fun activity.  For Harrington, stagecraft became a career for a young professional just now hitting his creative stride.  Strange discovered an outlet to develop his artistic skills, and now carries the torch that was handed to him from his mentor. For Little, volunteering backstage has become a calling.  Arthur O'Shaughnessy wrote "we are the dreamers of dreams...we are the movers and shakers of the world for ever, it seems."  These men behind the curtains of local theatre in Columbia make the magic, helping us to dream those dreams.

~ August Krickel

Photography by Jonathan Sharpe

Talented Young Cast Rocks the House at Workshop - A Review of Disney's Camp Rock - The Musical

Workshop Theatre's summer show, Disney's Camp Rock - The Musical, is enjoyable, family-friendly fun, set to an energetic rock beat, providing a nice chance for some talented teens and tweens to take center stage.  Based on two popular Disney tv movies that were vehicles for Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers, the show isn't exactly Sondheim, but aiming for the 8-18 age bracket means it's by no means a children's show either. Instead, we re-visit comfortably familiar themes of puppy love, teen rivalries, and summer camp hijinks, accompanied by a lively, contemporary pop-rock score. Sure, like any Disney product there is a little sense of some pre-packaging for a target demographic.  The book, by Robert L. Freedman and Faye Greenberg, is based on scripts and characters from five authors, while the score, "adapted, arranged, and orchestrated" by David Lawrence (a veteran Disney composer, who worked on all three High School Musical films, and is the son of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme) incorporates numbers from 20 (!) songwriters, meaning that there was just a little assembly line work going on. Chief among those writers is Kara DioGuardi, the American Idol judge who has written hits for former Disney starlets like Brittany Spears, Christina Aguilera and Hilary Duff, while others have worked with everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Katy Perry.  What impressed me most was how admirably and professionally the cast of 33 local youngsters (only a few are past their teen years) acquitted themselves on stage, demonstrating yet again that there is an entire generation of new local performers waiting in the wings.

The titular Camp Rock is a summer performance/music camp for kids, run by Brown Cesario (George Dinsmore), an aging rocker from the early MTV era, who capitalizes on the popularity of his three nephews, members of a popular boy band, Connect 3. When rival Camp Star (more luxurious, more regimented, and founded by the drummer Cesario fired 15 years before) threatens Camp Rock's future, it's no plot spoiler to reveal that the protagonists will have to overcome personal issues and teen drama, to pitch in together for a battle of the bands.

Katie Foshee has done nice work in any number of ensemble and supporting roles in recent years; here she graduates to romantic lead, the rocker chick Mitchie, and doesn't disappoint. Resembling a prettier Danica McKellar (Kevin's dream girl on The Wonder Years) Foshee displays a strong, appealing voice, and a talent for quick bantering dialogue. Nominal male lead Alex Cowsert, as Shane, likewise distinguishes himself vocally, especially in a couple of sweet love songs with Foshee. I say "nominal," since middle brother Nate (Avery Herndon) gets a romantic sub-plot too, and he very nearly steals the show with the song "Introducing Me," also featuring Alex Webster as the winsome Dana.  I recall Herndon from the ensemble in Spring Awakening this winter at Trustus, but, like Foshee, here he gets a chance to showcase some serious vocal talent.   When he and Webster sing together, they are just adorable; if they were any cuter, they'd be puppies.  Of course, there has to be a teen diva in the show like this, and Kathryn Reddic plays "mean girl"  Tess with gusto, plus gets some of the best dance numbers. Also of note is Marc Smith as Tess's rival Luke; his R&B-themed song "Fire" is done in an ultra-deep, resonant baritone, quite rare in a world of Ushers and Chris Browns.  Catherine Davenport, Tara Wallace and Mellie Boozer make the most of supporting roles as Mitchie's fellow campers, while the tiny Quincy Sykes gets some good laughs as a precocious and mischievous drummer-girl-in-training.  As above, the entire cast does fine in the group numbers, and even the youngest performers (some seem about age 8) keep up move for move, step for step, with their older peers.

Musical Director Daniel Gainey (also a gifted actor, as we saw in In the Next Room at Trustus just a few months ago) achieves a full, rich sound from his young and largely female cast.  At no time do we ever hear "Hard Knock Life"-style, sing-song children's voices; instead we hear the same catchy harmonies featured in any top 40 song on the radio today.  Choreographer Katie Hilliger also ensures that everyone's movements on stage are fluid and similar to the moves in any popular rock or hip-hop video.  The cast sings to a recorded score; that combined with 33 wireless mikes guarantees that there will be some issues with volume and feedback, but I have to say that any minor glitches were resolved almost instantly, and by and large, Baxter Engle's sound design is effective. Most of the cast have long hair and/or hats, and so for a pleasant change, head mikes were inconspicuous.

Director E.G. Heard makes everything flow and sound quite naturally; most of these kids could do a quite credible job playing these same roles in some professional touring version of this show.  Randy Strange's set incorporates a lush, realistic, painted drop (credit also goes to scenic artists Ed Sexauer, Beth Burnside and Pam Johnson) that depicts a lake and adjoining dock. Combined with the stage floor painted to suggest the shadows of foliage overhead (Barry Sparks' lighting design contributes to this effect too) and a couple of basic log cabin facades, the location is instantly and clearly defined, while leaving most of the stage free and uncluttered for the dance numbers.  Sparks also includes some nifty and inventive lighting effects in the pieces performed by the Star Campers, including "Tear It Down," featuring Reddic and Smith.  While most of the costumes are ostensibly "street clothes" and typical casual wear, Alexis Doktor plays with a lot of fine nuances; one camper wears a sequined shirt, another prefers tie-dye, and a third wears a plaid mini-skirt with dark leggings, each embodying a particular "type" of high school fashion and preference.  The Star Campers, on the other hand, all wear uniform-like, general issue t-shirts, making a subtle statement about the difference between the two groups.  When we notice one Star Camper wearing a slightly different and more attractive design, it's no surprise that she will turn out to be important to the plot. Even Dinsmore sports an authentic CBGB shirt, immediately defining Cesario's era before he has to say a word. I do wish that Cowsert and Herndon were clothed in a bit more glam fashion, to signify that they are actual rock stars, but youngest brother Jason (Ethan Cash) sports a funky hat and short pants, capturing the look of a pre-teen idol.

Don't get me wrong - like most Disney fare, much of Camp Rock is light-weight, derivative, and enjoyable for the moment, yet disposable. The plot is resolved via a deus-ex-machina slipped in so quickly you almost miss it.  Few of the many supporting characters are really developed, even though the entire play runs under an hour and 45 minutes.  A central conflict (stemming from Mitchie alienating her friends, by driving them so hard to succeed) was echoed in at least two reruns of The Big Bang Theory this past week alone, as well as in the final season of Buffy, at least one episode of Saved By the Bell, and probably many others previously.  Herndon's inability to communicate with the girl he's crushing on goes all the way back to She Stoops to Conquer in the 1700's.  The rousing Act 2 opener "Heart and Soul" is very reminiscent of the late 80's hit "Wild Wild West" by The Escape Club, while Mitchie and Shane's power ballad "Wouldn't Change a Thing" reminded me a bit of the Ann Wilson-Mike Reno duet "Almost Paradise."  And just about every musical number has a parallel scene in High School Musical.   Still, these are excellent sources to borrow from, and most audience members won't recognize how familiar it all seems.  The joy of Camp Rock is in the accessible, upbeat music, and how proficiently the local cast brings it all to life.  An earlier generation followed Jem and the Holograms; for me, it was the Monkees, Scooby Doo and the Partridge Family, and those older still may recall Dobie Gillis or even Andy Hardy;  Camp Rock is simply the latest incarnation of this same youthful, escapist entertainment.  I cannot imagine any teen or tween not enjoying it.  As for adults?  Well, I had an excuse to go: reviewing the show.  And my first thought when the lights went up?  "Those kids rocked the house!"  So I'd advise you to take your children or grandchildren, or find some younger siblings, cousins, or neighbors' kids, and treat them to an evening of theatre, one tailor-made for their musical tastes.  They’ll have a blast, and you might just too. Disney's Camp Rock - The Musical runs through July 28th at Workshop Theatre; contact the box office at 803-799-6551 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

Review -- August Krickel on Workshop Theatre's The Dixie Swim Club

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