Sunday, February 20, 2011

Red Door: "Country Songs"

The Red Door Theatre in Union Springs continues to bring insightful interpretations of minor plays on Southern themes, this time in a production of Country Songs by Judy Simpson Cook.

Set in 1986, Cook's play explores the familiar themes and situations besetting Southern women seeking independence from thier men. This time, Mildred [Johanna Hubbard] -- another in a long line of cosmetologists a la Steel Magnolias -- is a spirited middle-aged wannabe country songwriter who attempts to break out of a humdrum existence while doling out advice to anyone who will listen, particularly to high schooler Carly Ann [Charity Smith], whose adolescent dreams of proms and life-after-high-school are highly romanticized.

Mildred's best friend Earl [Beau Shirley] tells her that country star Laverne & the "Catawba River Music Makers" are coming to town and that Mildred's ex-husband Dwayne [Dustin Anderson] is the band's coordinator...he might just be able to get Laverne to play one of Mildred's songs and provide her the means to success.

Hovis [Robert Moorer] is Mildred's current beau who doesn't want to see her get hurt and is justifiably jealous of Dwayne; Mildred just can't seem to forget him even years after their marriage broke up.

Mildred's philosophy -- to "be whatever you want" and to "make independent decisions" and "not be guided by what other people might think of you" -- comes back at her with a vengeance as she must reassess her own fear of being alone, and her true motives for wanting so much for her song to be played: Is it for herself and what she really wants? or Is it at least in part to show up Dwayne and declare her independence from him?

As the men in her life express their love for her, Mildred is forced to make a decision: Dwayne's attempts to rekindle their past relationship is sabotaged by his interference in getting the song played; Hovis's earnest romance is half-heartedly returned; and Earl's persistent and often embarrassing intrusions that he intends as protection keep him in the "best friend" category.

There is some extraneous comic relief in the characters of Chester & Lester [Travin Wilkerson & Joseph Crawford], two bumbling grease-monkeys who can fix anything wrong with a car, but who are too embarrassed to set foot inside Mildred's female emporium.

First time director Anna Perry creates a fine ensemble out of the "all Bullock County" cast -- the first time at the Red Door. She affords each character its moments to shine, allowing audiences to identify with their problems, and achieving a good balance of humor and seriousness. Their truthful characterizations make them appear all the more human, not easily seen as either good or bad, but rather as flawed, just like all of us.

Ms. Perry directs at a steady pace that could be enhanced by quicker scene changes and by a variety of intensity that could drive pivotal scenes and get actors to walk more purposefully, thereby adding interest to an already solid production.

There are some standout performances here too. Mr. Shirley's sincerity as Earl, and his physical comfort, dead-pan delivery, and impeccable comic timing add dimension to his character. And in the central role, Ms. Hubbard carries every scene with conviction and flexibility that make her confusion and frustrations emerge as utterly believable with hardly a trace of stereotypical behavior.

We can all learn something from this play: the value of friendship, the necessity of compromise, the pursuit of dreams, and the homespun philosophy that "there's nothing better than sweet potato pie, but too much of it will make you sick."