Thursday, August 12, 2010

Red Door: "The Widow's Best Friend"

Guest Reviewer: Gregg Swem

Everything is topsy-turvy in Randy Hall's The Widow's Best Friend, a play about Southern small-town duplicity which played recently at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. -- One of the town's leading citizens has died of a massive coronary, but before the body is cold, word of his demise has traveled so fast -- as is often the case in small towns -- that the widow's friends descend on her house like scavengers at a roadside kill.

Ostensibly, these five women are there to provide comfort with casseroles and a shoulder to cry on. They're old friends who've come to answer the phone, go to the door as more friends bring more food, and to be by the side of the grieving Cornelia Dupree. But this widow is so disconsolate, she's holed up under a sheet in her bed with a pet cat in her arms and doesn't want to see anyone.

While she's in the bedroom (the widow is never seen on stage), her inner circle of friends is in the living room and kitchen, where it soon becomes apparent that all is not copacetic in the fictional town of Persepolis, Alabama. One by one, the women arrive and find they can't get into the bedroom (at least, not for long) to be by their friend's side. Their conversations begin to reveal that not only was Cornelia's husband engaged in hanky-panky at the time of his passing, but that the lives of all these close friends are not what they appear to be. Indeed, this is no Mayberry. There are cheating spouses, children on drugs, alcoholism, and mental abberations.

What appears to be a gathering of a sympathetic support group turns into a true confessions confabulation. In the middle of the hullabaloo, a young reporter from the local paper arrives at the Dupree home to get information for an obituary. Serving as a sounding board, the wide-eyed cub reporter, believably played by Travin Wilkerson, finds himself becoming Father Confessor to the whole gaggle. The well-intentioned but worrisome friends are Leigh Moorer's meddlesome Inez Medders, Summer Pickett Rice's controlling Penny Smothers, Johanna Hubbard's quirky nonconformist Geneva Quimby, Janet Wilkerson's puckish Martha Dick Triplett, and Jamie Allen's self-absorbed Janet Price Savage. Playwright Hall has given each character a name mirroring the traits of that person, including the inexperienced journalist who's called Tommy Blankenship.

Although the characters are integral to the story, one stands out as pivotal. Geneva Quimby, who at first seems senile and not to be taken seriously, is a model of adjustment -- someone who's learned to cope with life in her own way, and she shares this philosophy with the others, including young Blankenship who by play's end has acquired a great deal of knowledge about the world, easliy aging in practical wisdom from 23 to 63.

Director Fiona Macleod has assembled a skilled, lively cast whose comic timing is on the mark. And except for an occasional misstep in the more serious parts of the play, this is a smooth production. On the tech side, Mark Parsley's set design is inviting and functional, reminiscent of home interiors of the 1980s, the time of the play.

A two-act play, Hall's script is sometimes hard to follow as the story moves on. After the first act, there are so many Peyton Place-like developments to keep track of that the turns and twists become confusing. Still, The Widow's Best Friend is a clever comedy with serious statements about life, love, and friendship.