Saturday, January 26, 2013

Wetumpka Depot: "A Southern Exposure"

The first production of the River Region's 2013 season -- and also the start of the Wetumpka Depot's 33rd season -- is a gently comic and touching production of Kelley Kingston-Strayer's award winning A Southern Exposure, first performed here in an abbreviated form as the Depot's entry in the Alabama Community Theatre Festival in 2012. -- With several area plays taking the boards in the next few weeks, the one at the Depot as directed by Kristy Meanor serves to remind theatregoers that love and forgiveness and family values matter.

While the playwright doesn't pretend to "reveal great truths about the human condition, but only little truths about extraordinary women leading ordinary lives", in the growing cottage industry of plays about them, she does create an accessible tribute to Southern women...women as instantly recognizable as neighbors and family.

Graced with an excellent ensemble of veteran actors, Ms. Meanor deftly mixes the script's humor and pathos as she tells the story of two generations of Kentucky women: a young woman at odds with her grandmother and aunts whose old-time traditions and modern ideas often clash as they discover what binds them is mutual trust and respect.

Callie Belle [Madyson Greenwood] is eager to tell her great news -- she has met a man! And, while the older ladies are at first thrilled at the prospect of marriage for the young woman they dote upon, the fact that he is from New York, has pierced ears, is Jewish, and that Callie Belle plans to put her education on hold and move with him to New York gives them pause.

But their way of dealing with the situation is to "talk around" rather than "staying on topic" using a catch-phrase "heading for the pea-patch" as a warning that there's trouble ahead so let's change the subject, frustrating Callie Belle who resists their advice at every turn. Grandmother Hattie Belle [Hazel Jones], and Aunts Ida Mae [Barbara Davis] and Mattie [Judy Savage] do their best to persuade Callie Belle to their way of thinking; change is, after all, difficult for everyone in this play.

There aren't many surprises in the plot [Callie Belle does move to New York, the relationship with the boyfriend doesn't work out, Hattie Belle's cancer worsens, assorted misunderstandings occur throughout], but in a clever staging with the Kentucky homestead and the New York apartment sharing a split stage, the frequent telephone conversations afford the characters more genuine affection and  honesty than they can muster when they are together; yet at the critical moments Callie Belle returns home where the strength of family outweighs all other concerns.

To their credit, the acting company create their eccentric characters so convincingly that they avoid cliche. As Mattie, Ms. Savage dons several outrageous wigs and costume pairings that demonstrate her deteriorating mental capacity, and while Mattie forgets some things almost instantly, she has the presence of mind to focus when it really matters; and one can't help but feel for her when she discovers that others have kept things secret to "protect" her. -- Ms. Davis's Ida Mae is at once the prim and proper one and the one who will take risks. Her character is strong in critical situations and who can take charge when necessary without any need for praise.

Though Callie Belle loves all three older women, it is her relationship with her grandmother that it at the heart of the play. It is hard for them to talk openly and honestly. Hattie Belle has always "done for" her granddaughter, and misses her when Callie Belle is away, but she always tries to look on the bright side. So, when Callie Belle returns after her grandmother's car accident, the beginning of their true bonding takes place. -- The actresses in this production show a clear understanding of the cross-generation relationship; they are believable at every turn, showing reticence and compassion and frustration to one another, yet allowing their love to overcome all obstacles...even death. And while we don't want anyone to "regret what might have been", and the bickering among the characters will continue, at her grandmother's death, Callie Belle learns that "the young can't outmaneuver God".