Denise Gabriel has returned to the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs to direct her second Summer production. and brought two recent graduates from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro where she teaches to enhance a local production of Joan Vail Thorne's Southern-themed provocative comedy, The Exact Center of the Universe.
What at first glance is yet another in the popular genre of plays about strong Southern women [Steel Magnolias, et al.], Ms. Gabriel's firm hand and respect for Thorne's script prevent it from a dependance on predictable and stereotypical characters and situations. Only occasionally do her talented actors over-indulge and drop character -- perhaps to the delight of the local audience, but at the expense of otherwise truthful characterizations that would earn the laughs nonetheless. -- Performances are individually distinct and credible, each actor contributing to the ensemble with confidence and security in their roles.
In its two acts set in the 1950s and 1960s, Vada Love Powell [Betty Hubbard] is the self-appointed doyenne of the town, on first appearance a "powerful force" and stalwart defender of traditional values and good taste who takes the moral high-ground in her pronouncements, and whose authority has never been challenged -- especially by her son Appleton "Apple" [Stephen Spencer], who also serves as the narrator of the piece [with a nod to Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie].
She has smothered her son for all of his adult life, especially after the death of her husband, Mr. Powell, also played by Mr. Spencer, in dream-like sequences brought on by Veda's weak heart.
Living as she does in self-imposed isolation from the world's diversity [race, religion, etc.] that she chooses to ignore and presumes inferior, she seems impervious to change and ignorant of her own prejudices. As one character says, if "you live a lie long enough, you grow into it." -- Backing her up are Enid [Kim Graham] and Marybell [Janet Wilkerson] other members of her coven who gossip regularly in Enid's tree house while playing canasta, drinking tea and sherry, and consuming sweets, and whose down-home philosophy provides a clever commentary on the main action.
At the beginning of the play, Veda interrogates a young woman she presumes to be Apple's sweetheart Mary Ann [Kaleigh Malloy], only to find out she is Mary Lou, her identical twin, when Apple phones to tell his mother that he and Mary Ann are married. Coming as she does literally from the wrong side of the tracks [Mary Ann is also a Catholic from Italian extraction], Veda's control has been thwarted, bringing on a cycle of mistrust, fear, and regret. Veda is used to getting her own way, and everyone defers to her will, though she begrudgingly accepts her son's marriage.
Act II occurs ten years later, when Apple and Mary Ann have settled in town and produced children, with a kind of detente agreed with Veda. Mary Lou and Veda have become confidantes, perhaps because Mary Lou's excursions to exotic places intrigue Veda; but some of Mary Lou's explicit photographs of indigenous people are deemed "dirty" by Veda and therefore unfit for her grandchildren. -- Though she insists that she never "interferes", rather "intervenes", she oversteps the boundaries of parental authority, bringing outrage from Apple and Mary Ann's finally standing up to her mother-in-law.
Safely set in the not-too-distant past when [accurately or not] life was better and right & wrong absolutes were agreed, one can not help but notice the resonance of the play's themes on today -- when certain elements of our society take their opponents hostage and presume to impose their personal version of morality and right living on everyone regardless of the diversity that enhances understanding and tolerance.
Lessons can be learned from this production of The Exact Center of the Universe which unfortunately had only three performances. Perhaps the Red Door might re-think its one-weekend-only performance schedule so more people might experience productions of this caliber.