Monday, April 29, 2013

Red Door: "The Hallelujah Girls"

Ever since Beth Henley's 1979 debut of Crimes of the Heart at Actors Theatre of Louisville, a cottage industry of plays about eccentric Southern women has run rampant through the American theatre world. Several of them have been penned by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten; this trio's The Hallalujah Girls opened recently at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs. Its colorful characters are drawn with bold strokes, affording little availability for character development, so it is up to the actors to create vivid personalities on stage.

Fortunately, director William Harper has an all-veteran seven member acting ensemble at his disposal to deliver the goods and lift the stereotypical characters and predictable plot from being just another study of mostly middle-aged Southern women coming to terms with changes in their lives into a laugh-out-loud romp.

Set in fictional small town Eden Falls, GA where everyone knows everyone else's business, and covering a year in the lives of a number of its residents, the characters' behavior and the twists of plot stretch credibility -- but Mr. Harper's actors somehow make it all work.

After the death of their friend Vonda Joyce, some local women join Sugar Lee Thompkins [Kim Mason] as she tries to turn her life around and fulfill her dreams -- something that Vonda Joyce did not manage to do. Sugar Lee has bought a decaying church and plans to turn it into the Spa-Dee-Dah! day spa...with the help and support of her friends Carlene [Elizabeth Roughton], Nita [Jaymee Vowell], Mavis [Janet Wilkerson], and Crystal [Valerie Sandlin], all of whom are in need of makeovers and new directions in their lives.

Carlene has buried three husbands and thinks of herself as a jinx, and she is being courted by Porter [Mr. Harper] who is the only likely candidate for marriage and an admitted mama's boy; Crystal escapes reality by revising Christmas carols to suit any occasion and dresses in progressively outrageous costumes to suit every annual holiday; Nita is in complete denial of the fact that her son bilks her of money and property, and escapes through romance novel plots; Mavis hardly ever speaks with her husband and is at the brink of divorce, but covers her hurt with comically caustic comments about marriage; and Sugar Lee is reluctant to admit that her broken romance with Bobby Dwayne [Stephen Dubberley] -- a handyman who unexpectedly arrives to help renovate the building -- has turned her into a mistrustful person who avoids confrontation with witty remarks.

Enter Bunny [Leigh Moorer], a wealthy snob whose superior attitude grates on everyone, and who wants to turn the church building into a monument for herself and will do most anything to secure it.

So, these intertwined plot elements will work themselves out for the best: the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished -- but not without a lot of obstacles that must be overcome.

And the acting company work as a fine unit and create some comically memorable characters, with some standouts among them. -- Ms. Wilkerson's sharp-tongued Mavis is done with such confidence that the audience eagerly awaits her every appearance and are rewarded by unexpected comic delivery of the clever dialogue she is blessed to have been given. Ms. Vowell shines in her evocation of over-the-top romance novel prose, and captures Nita's sense of denial with brutal accuracy. Ms. Moorer's spiteful holier-than-thou creation of Bunny makes her a character we love to hate and applaud her defeat.

As so much of the plot centers on the relationship between Sugar Lee and Bobby Dwayne, Ms. Mason and Mr. Dubberley must carry the day. As they thrust and parry for control, we see them gradually accept each other on their own terms, and trust in their mutual love and respect by admitting the wrongs they did to each other in the past. Tentative at first meeting and awkward in several others, the development of this relationship is fated to bring them together, and in the hands of these two experienced actors, we believe them and share their happiness.

All in all, The Hallelujah Girls connects us to characters we can all relate to at some level, and provides a lot of laughs along the way.