Drunk with Laughter

A chance meeting between four middle aged women results in the formation of a weekly happy hour society.  As their bonds of friendship grow, each begins to rediscover herself in a new phase of life.  This is The Savannah Sipping Society by Jamie Wooten, Jessie Jones, and Nicholas Hope and is currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

This is a truly funny slice of life story.  The dialogue sparks and crackles with witty repartee and deadly sharp one liners.  Even more impressive is the fact that Wooten, Jones, and Hope have written a show that manages to keep an audience’s attention without benefit of a centralizing story.  This show is truly just a show about friendship and how these friends support each other through their individual arcs.  Each character is going through a major life change that can be universally understood by an audience:  divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, and finding one’s self.  As a unit, these four women work through these life changes and buoy each other as they become better versions of themselves due to the power of their friendship which enables them to overcome the obstacles in their paths to become more than they thought possible.

Talky shows are a difficult sell.  Talky comedies are even more difficult because it requires a masterful handling of the dialogue to sell it without benefit of sight gags and hijinks and a minute understanding of characters and their interactions to get the show where it needs to be.  Thanks to Peter Reynolds’ top notch direction, I have seen the best talky comedy ever.

Reynolds coaches a high caliber cast who keep the energy high and know just what words to hit to pick every piece of delectable fruit from the verbal tree of this comedy.  His understanding of the characters and how they interact is spot on as I fully believed in the friendship of this foursome in spite of their individual quirks.

As played by Erin Kelley, Randa Covington is a stick in the mud’s stick in the mud.  Randa has no life outside of her career and tries to live life logically which goes to pot after she is fired from her job.  Ms Kelley is wonderful as the overly serious and cautious Randa who is too focused on material success due to a desire to stick it to her dysfunctional family and too stiff to enjoy life. Seeing her loosen up and realize that life is an adventure to be experienced and learning what makes for a true family is one of the highlights of the production.

Nancy Marcy almost steals the show as Marlafaye Mosley.  Ms Marcy’s Marlafaye is the group friend whom you always feel will embarrass the group.  She has no internal filter or tact and says whatever she is thinking whenever she feels like it.  On the other hand, if you have a friend in her, you’ll have a friend for life and one who would walk into the depths of hell with you to watch your back.  Rare is the performer who can deliver a punchline like Ms Marcy who throws off acid tongue zingers as if they’re second nature.  Her performance is worth the price of a ticket by itself.

Donna M. Parrone is sweet as Dot Haigler.  Her interpretation of Dot will remind you of your own mother due to her kindliness and supportiveness and her occasional half step off attempts to fit in to the group activities.  Dot is definitely the most sympathetic character as life seems to beat her up a bit more than the others.  But Ms Parrone brings real strength to the character and shows it’s not about how hard you hit, but by how hard you get hit and yet keep moving forward.

Megan Opalinski is a riot as Jinx Jenkins.  Ms Opalinski’s Jinx is the friend who always manages to talk you into doing something against your better judgment.  She’s brassy, confident, stylish, and always looking for the next adventure.  But Ms Opalinski also brings a real dramatic heft to the character as she is on the search for an unknown something that keeps her from settling down in one place.  From her lovely performance, we learn the best meaning of the word family in both contexts, i.e.  the ones you choose and the ones you get.

P. Bernard Killian’s set is a beaut with the large veranda of the yellow house with the stunning Georgian columns and the glass French doors. Yvonne Johnson expertly costumes her performers appropriate to their personalities from the subdued, business garments of Randa, to the white trash garb of Marlafaye, to the motherly wear of Dot, and the stylish clothes of Jinx. Also impressive were some medieval gowns for a Renaissance fair scene, especially Marlafaye’s jester costume.

There were a few minor blips in lines and cue pickups, but this show is going to make you laugh yourself hoarse and It just might pull a tear from your eye along the way.

The Savannah Sipping Society plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 27 at Maples Repertory Theatre.  Showtimes are 2pm on June 22, 25-26, 29-30, July 5, 9-10, 12-14, 21, and 27 and at 7:30pm on July 3, 12, 20, 24, 26.  Tickets begin at $24 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 660-385-2924 or visiting www.maplesrep.com.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

Lethargic Farce Needs a Jolt

Renowned author and philanderer, Archer Connaught, is feared dead in a plane crash.  However he not only returns not dead, but with a new young love that he wishes to marry.  When Archer asks his wife, Josie, for a divorce, she reveals that they were never really married to begin with.  Instead of making things easier, things actually become more difficult since the world believes Connaught to be married.  The unwinding of this knotty problem is the story of James Elward’s Best of Friends, currently playing at the Bellevue Little Theatre.

Elward’s script actually begins with quite a bit of promise.  The plot is ideal for a good farce and the play does have some zippy wordplay and pointed zingers.  Unfortunately, the script runs out of gas by the end of the play with an unsatisfactory ending and non-endings to the story arcs of several characters.

The secret to a good farce is energy and I fear I may have caught this cast on an off night as the energy was sorely lacking in tonight’s production.  The pace had the consistency of glue and the cast really needed to tighten up their cues.  Volume was also an issue as a number of the performers did not project enough.

Emma Rasmussen makes her directing debut at the BLT with this production.  A rather new face on the directing scene, Ms Rasmussen demonstrates great potential with this show as there are several moments that truly sing.  However, some potentially humorous bits got overlooked and some beats needed to be dug into more deeply.  I also thought there were a couple of bland performances that needed some work as well as some distracting pieces of business that needed to be eliminated as it drew focus away from speaking actors.

Brian Witcher was quite an impressive find as he makes his BLT debut in the role of Archer Connaught.  He expertly walked that fine line of keeping Connaught unlikable, but still charming.  Connaught was an unhappy teacher who managed to hit it big with a novel.  Once he got money, he abandoned his family and nursed an addiction to women.  An addiction he seemed to be quite proud of.  Witcher is a highly animated performer with a knack of finding just the right turn of phrase and appropriate gestures at all of the right times.  As oily as this character was, Witcher managed to make me feel a little pity for him as he tried to fix his numerous broken relationships.

Janet Macklin does a solid job in the role of Josie Connaught, Archer’s maybe wife.  Ms Macklin has a grand gift for underplaying which worked very well for the most part.  Ms Macklin’s Josie comes off extremely loyal, at first, sticking by a husband who is at home very rarely and tolerating his infidelities.  That all changes once she reveals the lack of marriage.  That revelation also changes the tone of her underplaying as now everything she says is tinged with uncertainty leaving one wondering where the truth starts and ends.

Despite the overall good work, Ms Macklin does need to keep her projection up as it waxed and waned.  I also thought her confrontations with Archer’s lover needed to have a bit more edge to them.

Catherine Deluca’s turn as Kate Connaught seemed a bit listless and wooden.  She internalized a lot of the anger towards her father, Archer, due to his shabby treatment of the family.  That was not necessarily a bad choice, but I didn’t hear any variance in her delivery.  Ms Deluca also needed to react more when others were talking and speak up when she spoke.

Likewise, I considered Marcus Benzel’s portrayal of Archer’s son, Merrill, to be a bit one note in nature.  Benzel’s Merrill was a whiny, entitled lout, but he needed to nuance his delivery.  I do applaud him for bringing great energy to the role.  He actually seems a bit over the top which is not a bad thing for a farce.  But since he was the only performer doing so, he either needs to tone his performance down somewhat or the rest of the cast needs to raise their energy level to match his.

Melissa Jarecke brought a welcome jolt of juice with her rendition of the sardonic literary agent, Hazel Dunn.  She had some of the strongest scenes in the show and her dialogues with Archer and Josie sparked with vitality.  Alexander Hamilton is splendid in the small role of the hapless attorney, Felix Heckaday, who gets caught up in the lunacy of the Connaught family.  Tom Steffes brings terrific comedy relief as the drunken juggler/Justice of the Peace, Mr. Bledsoe.

This show did have quite a few strong technical aspects.  Joey Lorincz continues to impress as one of the best set designers in the city with a gorgeous study complete with rich green hues, a crackling fireplace, and well appointed library.  I loved Pam Matney’s sound design as it consisted of some of my favorite classic rock numbers.  The actors were also well costumed by Leah Skorupa-Mezger.

At the end of the night, I felt there was a truly great ensemble performance trying to break out of this show.  With a much needed dose of energy and some fine tuning of performances, I believe this cast can overcome the slight weaknesses of the script and have a great laugher on their hands.

Best of Friends continues at Bellevue Little Theatre through Feb 28.  Performances are at 7:30pm Fri-Sat and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students with proper ID.  Reservations can be made by calling 402-291-1554 between the hours of 10am-4:30pm Mon-Sat.  This show does deal with some adult subject matter and is not recommended for children.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 E Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.