t’s not often that a comedy offers a workable mix of amusing camp, pathos and food for thought, but Stageworks’ production of The Sugar Bean Sisters taps the theatrical sweet spot in several places — with just a few drawbacks.
Playwright Nathan Sanders’ script recalls the disturbingly absurdities of Southern Gothic lit past and present, and the cast, capably directed by Stageworks Artistic Director Karla Hartley, gives us some of the best heart-tugging and comedic performances of the year.
But best of all are the lip-smacking one-liners — “You can’t piss in my ear and make me think it’s raining” or “You can roll a dog turd in powdered sugar but that still don’t make it no wedding cookie.”
The Sugar Bean Sisters’ script plays out like Grey Gardens re-envisioned by John Waters on a rum punch bender with Carl Hiaasen. It’s a narrative funhouse ride of Florida Cracker slapstick, imagination vs. reality, mysterious ghosts and juju, stunted human development and the murky waters of good and evil — oh, and flying cats. At the tale’s core is the need for escape and transformation, and the three principals here have vastly different agendas.
Sanders’ lonely and abandoned women are the Nettles sisters, who were indoctrinated into the Mormon faith after a family tragedy. The sisters live an isolated life in a swamp in the fictitious town of Sugar Bean, Fla. The play begins with their return from a day trip to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Willie Mae (Rosemary Orlando) has lost her favorite Eva Gabor wig on Space Mountain and blames her sister Faye (Caroline Jett), who seems like the more levelheaded of the two until she starts readying for the arrival of Martians and brags about being interviewed for the Weekly World News. Faye hopes to have her own Close Encounter and be whisked from the awful world forever.
Faye feels encumbered by her ailing sister and convinces herself that she must dispatch with Willie Mae to show her obedience to the Martians. Her plans are interrupted by the arrival of showgirl Miss Videllia Sparks (Caitlin Eason), a kooky exotic dancer from New Orleans, who isn’t forthcoming about her reason for seeking out the Nettles’ home.
Videllia is one more ball of contradictions in a cast that makes the most of Sanders’ play. Ned Averill-Snell, perhaps the most ambiguous of them all, Bishop Crumley. He’s the only regular visitor to the Nettles’ house, a onetime Mormon missionary who converted them after their father was convicted of poisoning beauty pageant contestants. Averill-Snell effectively portrays the good samaritan, at once deadpan and distinguished, making us wonder if he’s walking among the living or dead — or both.
Ami Sallee is just as amusing as the Reptile Woman. She’s one part voodoo woman, one part hippie naturalist and three parts wacky eccentric. Eason, like the other women in the show, is versatile with spot-on delivery as Videllia Sparks. No less tough than Faye, and she’s just as morally confused. Eason pulls off her character’s rich nuances, but some of her physical comedy falls short. The exaggerated gestures are too cartoony in a play that’s already overflowing with silliness.
Jett is superb as salty tomboy Faye, the cracked rock of the household. She deftly delivers some of the funniest lines in the play. She’s just as comical yelling as she is commenting under her breath. One example of her expert timing comes after the Reptile Woman’s peculiar histrionics. “She’s one spooky bitch,” she responds, breaking the audience’s confused silence. Like Jett, Orlando never overacts and gives us a beautifully nuanced performance as the frail zealot Willie Mae, who pines for Bishop Crumley and wonders why she never found true love. Orlando is exquisite, with a slow, deliberate cadence that’s absolutely perfect.
Some instances of prop choice and lighting were a bit off and amateurish — Videllia gazes into a mirror in a dimly lit room? More atmospheric music and sound effects would have helped to remind us the Nettles were indeed in the middle of a swamp. Amanda Bearss’ set is marvelous, though.
Sanders’ script is often a bit heavy-handed with its religious and moral underpinnings. While it’s ingenious that we see the women’s outcome unfold from the perspective of their own belief systems, it would have been more effective to leave a little more to mystery.
Still, I was heartened to see a play with juicy roles for women. Let’s hope it’s a trend.
The Sugar Bean Sisters runs through June 29 at Stageworks Theatre, 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. $26, $22 for seniors, $10 for artists, students or military. stageworkstheatre.org.