Southern Charm Resonates
June awarded me my first chance to review a show produced by Consider This, Inc., at the Swan Performing Arts Center. I am most glad for the opportunity. The production of Steel Magnolias was absolutely delightful, and I quickly became enamored of an entirely new group of Rutherford County actors. It is not often that I share a theatre with an audience of 75 and know absolutely none of them, but I am encouraged to know that the theater community in our city is even more robust than I was aware.
From my conversations with members of the Consider This guild, who were the most hospitable of hosts, I learned that the company has been in existence for several years, but in that time they have been searching for a permanent home. Currently located just on Park Avenue (just off Middle Tennessee Boulevard) the theater venue is intimate and unconventional. Seats swept the edges of the stage on two opposing sides, which gave an in-the-round feeling. I found myself less than two feet away from the performers on several occasions; the sensation was simultaneously unsettling and enjoyable.
This production of Steel Magnolias was both traditional and fantastic. It is true that, on occasion, it is best not to deviate too far from an audience’s expectations. This rendition of Robert Harling’s beloved script was almost perfect. I write “almost” because the pacing was a bit slow at times, and a three-hour show is something of which only musical theater and William Shakespeare can be completely absolved. Yet the characters were so entertaining that the time flew by.
Monica Davis owned the theater as Truvy, the proprietress of the beauty shop where the action of the play takes place. Her performance was sincere, hilarious and perfect. She was matched comedically note for note by Jessica Wells as Anelle, the young beautician recovering from her past, and Kim Chunn as Clairee, the town matron in possession of much of the juicy gossip of Chinquapin Parrish. Wells was adorable, and Chunn charming, as they set the scene for the unfolding drama. As warring mother and daughter, Sherry Gastineau and Joanna Loyed—who portrayed mother M’Lynn Eatenton and daughter Shelby, respectively—were a brilliantly poignant duo. Rounding out the cast was Nancy Wells as the indefatigable curmudgeon Ouiser Boudreaux, who brought to the stage a refreshingly new take on the character (though I must admit that I felt her costumes were a bit out of place).
Without doubt, this production was a breath of fresh air for me. To find a completely new, and fiendishly talented, group of performers was a most welcome surprise. Director Barry Hardy should be commended on his fantastic work in bringing together such talented performers in such a believable and organic fashion. I look forward to adding reviews of future Consider This productions to this column. The talent and hospitality of this company are a warm and gracious addition to our theater community.
Hauntings Abound at MLT
To say that the Murfreesboro Little Theatre production of Noel Coward’s classic Blithe Spirit was a spectacle to behold is to fail to do the production justice. This ghostly farce centers on the tale of a middle-aged author and his second wife who unwittingly help summon the ghost of his first wife, who haunts the poor man mercilessly as she unfolds machinations designed to force him to join her in the afterlife. Vacillating between ribaldry and prudishness, the play never ceases to amuse.
It is in some respects unfortunate that the most memorable piece of this production was the set. Elegantly appointed, the beautiful sitting room that covered the MLT stage was simply unforgettable. This owes in no small part to the brilliantly conceived and executed special effects, which included translucent paintings, self-destructing picture frames and bookshelves and a levitating table, the effect of which was so perfect that the audience left without having a clue how the illusion was created.
The cast of Blithe Spirit was assembled from both veterans and newcomers to the MLT stage. Dalton Reeves, who recently graced the MLT stage as Dr. Henry Jekyll, portrayed the increasingly neurotic author Charles Condomine. His effortlessly British second spouse, Ruth, was played by Emily Lowery. The couple worked well together, though I often had the impression that Coward intended for the roles to be played by actors a bit older. As friends of the Condomine couple, Shane Lowery and Tanya Todd were amusing as the fellow couple of Dr. George and Violet Bradman, who participated in the séance—led by Meigie Mabry as spiritualist Madame Arcati—that brought forth the playful phantom of Elvira Condomine, brought to the stage by Danielle Araujo.
The obviously talented cast appeared to be somewhat hamstrung by what I can only imagine was unclear guidance from director Peter Hiett, III. While some of the actors portrayed characters, others were drawn to caricature, and the resulting mélange was often disconcerting. It was also apparent that, at times, Coward’s extensive vocabulary outpaced the realm of comfort for some of the actors. The standout performance came from Mabry, whose deliciously self-absorbed psychic more than once sacrificed bodily safety for the sake of physical comedy.
In all, Blithe Spirit was an enjoyable outing. The ambiance of the Log Cabin Theater was a perfect setting for a ghost story, and the cast and crew worked tirelessly to deliver a humorous and memorable experience.
Out Front Focuses on The Moment
This month’s offering at Out Front on Main was a side-splitting pair of one-act plays. Matt & Ben and Hidden In This Picture are both delightful meta-comedies about the creation of Hollywood gold. Both shows were expertly directed by Leah Fincher, an Out Front veteran who is demonstratively displaying her gifts as one of the up-and-coming directors in Rutherford County. With these shows, Fincher has staked her claim as a comedic director who should not be underestimated.
Matt & Ben is a deliciously fictionalized recreation of the events leading up to the creation of the script of the Academy Award winning film Good Will Hunting. Starring Heidi Erving as Matt Damon and Elizabeth Williams as Ben Affleck, the play was a raucous adventure of male bonding—made even more fantastical with women playing the roles—that drags a laughing audience through all the stereotypical phases of masculine creativity, which is based on an ineffable combination of jealously, self-loathing, and mutual dependancy. Erving and Williams were both perfect and dynamic as they bounded through the inevitable creative differences that led to one of the most memorable scripts of a generation.
Hidden In This Picture is an intellectual gem penned by Aaron Sorkin. The one-scene show, which centers on the difficulties of crafting the perfect film shot, starred Justin Bourdet as Robert, the tirelessly dedicated auteur of the film in production, and Andy Woloszyn as Jeff, the attempting-to-be-even-keeled producer of the picture. The cast was rounded out by Seth Limbaugh as Reuben and Allen Murphy as Craig, assistants who suffer mercilessly for the sake of the movie being created. These four actors crafted an inimitably hilarious exposé of the drama behind the scenes in Hollywood. Each of them should be congratulated on his performance.
CFTA Stages a Classic
In the spirit of full disclosure, let me admit that I was involved in some modest way—at the request of first-time director Bill Stewart—with the mechanics of the casting process for this show. However, I fervently disclaim any responsibility for what transpired on stage. The show far exceeded my expectations and was a transcendent performance by a exceptional group of thespians. To write plainly, To Kill A Mockingbird, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, was the most successful and beautiful production that has graced the stage of the Center for the Arts in recent memory.
The cast was led by Kelly Northcutt Hayes in an exceptional performance as Jean Louise Finch, the show’s narrator and the grown counterpart of her child-self Scout, played flawlessly by the young—yet unquestionably gifted—Emily Conley, and John Mack Green, who brought a refreshingly new gravitas to the role of Atticus Finch and challenged even the performance of Gregory Peck in the famous film. I have seen Hayes and Green on stage in other productions, but none of those shows were so suited for their undeniable talents as the characters they created here.
It was an incredibly self-aware decision that brought this cast to sharing a single, group bow at the conclusion of the show. There simply were no minor actors in this production. It would be too easy to concentrate on the subtle evil of MayElla Ewell, wonderfully portrayed by Laura Schlesinger, or the overt evil of MayElla’s father, Bob Ewell, whose vitriol was fearlessly brought to bear by Robert McAdams. Or upon the victim of the Ewell machinations, Tom Robinson, who was delicately played to perfection by GilJuan Kirby as the epitome of the wrongfully accused. Also, I cannot sufficiently praise the performance of Jeff Stateler as Arthur “Boo” Radley. It is uncommon that an actor can encapsulate in a role allowed only one spoken line the depth of pathos that Stateler brought to the stage. There is a singular, definitive moment at the denouement of the play when Atticus thanks Boo for saving the lives of his children. In this moment, Green and Stateler—in the understated honesty of their interaction—delivered the single most powerful moment of live theatre that I have ever seen. Ever.
The remainder of the cast, though I do not have the space to praise them as they deserve, should be proud of the remarkable show they created. Freshman director Bill Stewart should be lauded as well, both for his remarkable guidance and for his visionary set design, crafted with the assistance of Hayes; it was a set that helped plumb the depths of this memory play with a skeletal recreation of Maycomb, Ala., at the height of the Great Depression. I can find no other conclusion for the review of this show than to write that I wish you had seen it.