Friday, May 13, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "Sugar Bean Sisters"

Welcome to Sugar Bean, Florida and the "swamp house" of sisters Fay [Kim Mason] and Willie Mae [Kristy Meanor], two middle-aged women who have been nagging at one another for thirty years since their parents and youngest sister died under bizarre and tragic circumstances. In Nathan Sanders's Southern Gothic dark comedy The Sugar Bean Sisters [1995], directed with a sure hand at the Wetumpka Depot by Tom Salter, the ambivalent relationship between the sisters is at once strange and familiar.

They have just returned from a trip to Disney World to find Videlia Sparks [Jaymee Vowell] inside their house; a cross between a dance-hall floozie and a garish New Orleans Mardi Gras entertainer, Videlia insinuates herself into their lives while Fay awaits the return of a Martian space ship and Willie Mae yearns for deliverance into the "celestial kingdom" -- hopefully in company with the local & handsome Mormon Bishop [Brad Sinclair].

With family buried in the swamp just outside the front door, a convenient thunder storm to douse the lights, several gothic tales of deaths and doom & gloom philosophy, Willie Mae's "settlement" fortune buried in a secret place, assorted "curses" on the family, a murder plot that goes awry, the ghost of their mother occasionally rocking the rocking chair, and a voodoo Reptile Woman's incantations that claim "sometimes you can't tell the devil from an angel" [Anne Marie Mitchell stops the show with her intense characterization], the plot's many twists and turns continually surprise and entertain.

Performances here are top-notch, if a bit unsettling. None of the characters are virtuous,yet we are somehow drawn to them. Even Mr. Sinclair's Bishop is a study of contradictions -- he seems innocently compassionate at first, yet has some sinister traits revealed later on. They lie or dissemble, cheat, plot against or manipulate one another in devious ways; but the dialogue is replete with witicisims and, as we see their faults, we can't help but to approve of disaster to come for them. At the same time, the actors are so fully committed to playing these eccentric dysfunctional types so honestly, that no matter how repellent their actions and ideas might be, we can see them as human beings trying desperately to live out their unfulfilled dreams and escape the family legacies.

Ms. Meanor is stalwart in the role of Willie Mae, the seemingly better adjusted sister; Ms. Vowell's deceptive flightiness belies ulterior motives well; and Ms. Mason's comic timing and animation are exquisite as they hide a darker side. Yet it is their ensemble playing that raises this otherwise quirky dark comedy into a provocative production in which Mr. Salter balances humor and pathos that causes us to reflect on our own motives and relationships.