The Whole Backstage Theatre, in Guntersville, is producing the funny, touching play The Dixie Swim Club, through next weekend. This play centers around five women who met as members of a college swim team years ago, and now get together for one weekend at the beach every summer. This play is set at the ocean-front beach house, and covers four of those weekend get-togethers over a span of thirty-three years. Free from husbands, jobs, and kids, they catch up, laugh, and meddle in each other’s lives.
This play, written by the prolific team of Jones, Hope, and Wooten, is one of their better scripts. It’s still a “southern comedy”, with dialogue, topics, and characters that likely play best in this region of the country. The relationships between these five women are by turns hilarious and touching, as we watch them share, discuss, and deal with their very different paths in life since their college swim-team days. This particular production by the Whole Backstage Theatre, is adequate, with some good laughs, but it is not the excellent evening at the theatre that it could have been. It has some nice acting and decent technical elements–enough to let the audience relax and enjoy the show.
Gena Rawdon, as the pragmatic, hard-bitten, hard-drinking lawyer “Dinah”, is a stand-out. She perfectly captures the character, and brings a fun, loving touch to to it, with a wonderful handling of her late-show character arc. Chelle Bailey, as the ditzy “Jerri Neal”, also does a very nice job portraying the air-headed, heart-of-gold, ray of sunshine the character provides the group. Nina Soden, as the practical, everything-planned “Sheree”, provides a solid base around which the rest of the characters can orbit, and does especially well when it’s time for her no-nonsense character to let her guard down. Valarie MacMurdy, as the hard-luck “Vernadette” doesn’t quite carry around the pathos one would expect for her character, being a little too light-hearted and happy, living through her horrible life experiences. Perhaps a missed opportunity by the director to shape and differentiate the five women, we don’t quite get that these weekends with the girls are the one highlight of Vernadette’s dreary life. That said, while the character choice doesn’t support the best needs of the script, McMurdy is “in the moment” at all times, and is quite believable and real in her version of this character. Laura Ellen Lewis, as the vain “Lexie”, seems a bit over-the-top and unnatural at times. Lexie is the “plastic” member of the group, living most of her life concerned about outward appearances, which makes this a fine line to draw–between a character who is putting on a show, and an actor who is over-acting–but Lewis strays a little too far over the line for much of this production. Possibly it was opening-night jitters, because by the end of the show, when Lexie shows her inner side, Lewis is much more believable. Regardless, she definitely creates a distinctive character, and has no problem getting her share of the laughs.
The directing, by Diane DuBoise, could have done much more to add to the production. The blocking is very linear, with 90% of the play happening in a 5′ deep strip across the stage. One almost feels that this play could have been mounted in a pool of light around the seating circle downstage center. What blocking there is seems like blocking-by-actor–random movements adopted by the performers on instinct during early rehearsals–and never cleaned up to support the action and emotion of the script at the particular moment. There are even a few specific times in which the actions on stage are in direct opposition to the script–during a reference to things being thrown out the window, the actors point to the door; and at one point an actor supposedly easily notices a pair of crutches, which is amazing, considering they have been stashed on the other side of the stage behind a piece of furniture. Additionally, the pacing of the play needs work. On the one hand, necessary pauses are missing, to let the show breathe between beats. Every script has a rhythm to it–periods of high emotion or humor that need to move quickly, and periods of quietness in between, to allow a mental reset or break for the audience–and this production is missing that, with a fairly consistent pace throughout. On the other hand, almost every line cue needs to be “picked up”, getting rid of the slight pause between one actor finishing a line, and the next actor starting theirs. In fact, there are clearly times when lines should be said over the top of each other, like during the arguments. These characters are far too polite, waiting nicely until the line before theirs in the script is complete, before starting their own, even when it’s completely different conversations on the opposite sides of the stage. In the last scene, as the women have all suddenly become “old”, the pace drops into first gear, because apparently the elderly all have to talk slow and take long pauses between lines. All that said, DuBoise does a nice job with the play’s tender moments. Perhaps because the show already has a slow pace, and these moments should be quiet, intimate things with little movement, the touching parts of the script really do work well, and we do end up caring about the characters, even with all the missed moments for a fast pace in between.
It was a brave choice across the board in the last scene to show the drastic aging as the characters jump from 54 to 77 years old. Especially considering the demographics of the audience on opening night, many of whom are older than 77, it certainly took courage to portray every one of the women as decrepit, and barely able to move. While some people of that age are in that condition, it’s hardly universal, and the playwrights didn’t script it that way. Granted, the earlier transitions from 44 to 54 would not have shown nearly the physical changes that the final 23-year jump would, going for extra humor at the expense of the aged is a bold move that may not have the pay-off the production is apparently expecting.
The technical elements are generally quite supportive of the show. The costumes, by Susan Ruhlman and Mary Ruth McCord, do a nice job of capturing the different characters at various stages of life, and also more than do their part at adding to the laughs for those special costume moments. Daphne Noble had a special challenge designing the make-up for this production, because the characters are supposed to age 33 years, with often only the time of a short scene change for the alterations. It is a flaw in the script, but Noble’s wigs and slight make-up touches during those times, nicely “age” the characters as the scenes pass. Jimmy Davis’s sound design nicely complements the production, providing the effects without distracting from the show. It is unfortunate that the actors all needed microphones, but the balances and levels were maintained well throughout, by John Davis Rollings and Kate Griffith. John Cardy, the scene designer, made an odd choice of flipping the set 180 degrees. As scripted, the bay window that looks out over the ocean, is toward the audience. Putting that window, and the ocean, upstage, doesn’t really add anything to the show, and in fact, requires that the audience look at a row of backsides when the characters are having contemplative moments staring out to sea. The one possibility created by flipping the set–allowing the lighting, designed by Robin Moore, to showcase ocean skies on the back wall–is not capitalized on. Granted, the blue skies and rosy sunsets are present, and very nice, but the incoming hurricane in one of the four scenes is glaring in its absence. The lighting does successfully meet its first mandate–allowing the audience to see the show–but fails to make any real contribution to the varied times of day and moods. Ed Shirley’s stage crew could pick up the pace a little on the scene changes. It’s possible the crew was told to kill time for make-up and costume changes, but it was simply too long, and shortcuts should have been found. The blackouts in the middle of each act might not have been quite long enough to make a trip to the restroom, but they certainly killed the momentum of the show enough for the audience to start lively conversations with their seat-mates out of boredom. Kudos to Johnny Brewer for giving proper program credit for all the work done by the volunteers not only before the show opened, but during the run of the production, something some other local theatre groups fail to do.
This is a funny script, with wonderful touching moments, and characters we do come to care about. A few of the technical elements work well, and the acting was acceptable to great, but when taken as a whole, this production doesn’t rise to nearly the level it could have achieved. There is no question there were laughs to be had, but that is a credit to the script, rather than this particular production. The Whole Backstage Theatre has an amazing facility, and a deep history, but they may be suffering from being the “only game in town”, and not feeling the pressure to push for excellence. I expect that I have won few friends in Guntersville with this review, but I’m confident that will change over time. It is obvious the talent and experience are there for amazing productions, but sadly, this is merely an acceptable evening at the theatre, without being anything more. For anyone interested in seeing if they hold opinions differing from mine (which is always possible, and are welcomed), ticket information and show times can be found here.