I don’t want to go into great detail about the plot, because that would deprive you of its many joys. Suffice it to say that after this week's embarrassing line of questioning by Justice Brett (“I like beer”) Kavanaugh, who seemed to forget his promise to embrace stare decisis precedents, the play is torn from the headlines.
Bill Leavengood strings us along in this splendid tale by alternating serious, gasp-inducing plot surprises with incisive social commentary and sassy one-liners that made me produce embarrassing snorts on more than one occasion. Modern society doesn’t fare very well. Leavengood’s barbs poke fun at entrenched patriarchy, sexism, religious hypocrisy, prep school, entitled self-righteous teen boys (Brett, yet again), gold diggers, generational abuse, and the human penchant for serial delusional choices. When a semi-retired prostitute with PTSD is the moral center and the voice of reason in a play, you know that many sacred cows are being sent to the dramatic abattoir.
The Studio Grand Central space has 50 comfortable seats and a postage stamp stage. There’s no set designer credited; indeed the design work reflects the expected budget limitations. It’s functional for the action including a storm door with screen, a blue shag rug, and midcentury modern arm chair, but there are no visual elements to embody Gulfport’s old Florida charm save walls the color of pale blue surf. There is a telling pillow on the sofa embroidered with “happiness,” that has, unfortunately, most often been an elusive struggle for the characters. Lighting designer Mario Gonzales doesn’t have much with which to work, so it’s mostly general illumination rather than dramatic art; he is able to mimic Florida sunlight, though, by directing beams through real blinds, which hang over the crowd downstage. However, limited design resources really don’t matter much because the actors bring Leavengood’s script to vivid life. Director Tina Ball keeps the action moving, mines the script for all its humor, and fills the scene changes with driving pop vocals.
Artistic Director Ward Smith has reached out to New York City’s New Circle Theatre Company for Ms. Ball as well as the sisters of the title, Amber Paul (Dixie) and Amanda Ladd (Renelle). Tampa’s Sydney Reddish (Maddy) hits all the right dramatic notes, even if she requires extra suspension of disbelief as a girl on the cusp of 16.
Ladd has the juiciest part as the deluded, irresponsible sister Renelle who descends on Gulfport with her newfound beau Gene (Smith), an evangelical grifter returning from Saudi Arabia en route to Texas. They are simultaneously embarrassing, inappropriate, hypocritical, and hilarious—even as they debase themselves or try to deal with serious issues.
Amber Paul (Dixie) is touching, funny, and fierce as we learn of her lifelong struggle for survival against insurmountable odds—while always finding a way to help Maddy break the destructive familial cycle clearing the way for her to be “free to ruin my own life.”
When a semi-retired prostitute with PTSD is the moral center and the voice of reason in a play, you know that many sacred cows are being sent to the dramatic abattoir.
As the play moves to the denouement that the audience may hope for, playwright Leavengood gives the pearl of wisdom for his play to the young teen, Maddy, who has seen more of life’s seamy side than any 16-year-old should. She wisely proclaims, “I’m sick of the wrong people being ashamed.” Sadly, it’s a sentiment for our time that only serves as a very painful reminder of the nightly news and the hypocrisy afflicting our federal judiciary and legislative branches this week. Hamlet’s advice to the players is “to hold a ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” Leavengood’s play is often very funny, but ultimately reflects our failure to embody necessary change.
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