“I’m on a downhill slide to a tight perm and a ‘I heart my cat’ sweatshirt,” announces Honey Raye, a bottle-blond 50-going-on-20-year-old poured into a gold lame cocktail dress.
One of a large bouquet of steel-magnolia-like personalities in Asheville Community Theatre’s latest offering, Dearly Beloved, Honey is reunited with her two middle-aged sisters when the trio puts the finishing touches on Tina Jo’s wedding.
Tina Jo, the more worldly of a set of twins, is absent for most of the two-hour play — which leaves plenty of time to get to know florist/Greyhound-bus announcer Geneva, nervous minister-in-training Justin, Barney Fife disciple John Curtis, and others.
But even with well-oiled themes like wedding meltdowns, hoop skirts and sibling rivalry, can Dearly Beloved bring the real South home to its viewers, who — in a tourist town like Asheville — might not be fluent in the dialect?
To be continued
“It doesn’t come from a cliche in our heads,” says playwright Jessie Jones, one of the three librettists who crafted Dearly Beloved. “Many of [the characters] have been in our families.”
Jones, along with Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, all grew up in the South before careers in theater and TV writing lured them to bigger cities. Still, scenes from their hometowns stuck with each of the scripters, compelling them to recreate the outlandishly colorful characters they’d grown up with.
“We’ve been wanting our whole lives to write a Southern [play],” Wooten says during a recent interview. He talked to Xpress from his new home in Asheville: The playwright has satisfied a hankering to set down literal roots as well as literary ones.
During the house-hunting process, Wooten’s realtor recognized Jones’ name from a play she’d done for ACT a decade earlier, and serendipitously recommended the theater for the premiere of Dearly Beloved.
“We knew from the start it would take three plays to do it,” Wooten adds.
That’s right — Dearly Beloved is just the first installment in this comical homecoming. The playwright trio is polishing off Part Two, and the final chapter is in the works, but Asheville theatergoers get first peek at the world Jones, Hope and Wooten have created — or recreated, as the case may be.
There’s one in every family
Before the first word is uttered on stage, the audience cracks up. The opening music, sets, costumes and elaborate wigs all attest to the writers’ accomplished comedic sensibility. All three cut their teeth in sitcom writing, though it’s Wooten whose career in television took off with early-’90s episodes of The Golden Girls (he currently writes for Half & Half). The sitcom touch is apparent in the play’s fast-moving humor, propelled by snappy one-liners and over-the-top caricatures.
“I myself have never found it so easy to talk to men of the opposite sex,” chirps GJ — the dowdy twin, a career cow-inseminator. Played by Susan Cato, GJ boasts a flawless country twang.
Betsy Pucket channels a hard-boiled Lucille Ball in sparkly cowgirl boots for her role as Geneva — “the toughest eight yards of mint-green chiffon you never wanna meet,” as she’s introduced.
Thelma Cousins’ Honey Raye is a perfect mix of Dolly Parton glam and Brit-comedienne Molly Sugden slapstick.
On America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks confessed she learned everything about working the runway from drag queens — an admission the broad characters of Dearly Beloved could also make. But — political correctness be damned — it’s exactly their exaggerated accents, spangly wedding attire, pouffy hair and punchy lines that make the production so utterly watchable.
Never too much cheese
While the play drags at times through bulkier family matters — the three aging sisters iron out their differences over a potluck wedding banquet — Dearly Beloved, buoyed by well-placed zingers, maintains a jaunty confidence.
“Lemme get this straight,” quips the mother of the bride. “I’m serving my guests government-subsidy cheese?”
Even for someone who doesn’t tend to laugh out loud, I found myself doing just that on a regular basis.
There’s also the sense that no matter how staged, Dearly Beloved is a real glimpse of days gone by — a theme Jones, Hope and Wooten had in mind when creating their Southern tale.
“They write about the South they know best — the South of their childhoods before the great homogenization of American culture had taken hold,” ACT observes in advance-press statements.
“All you have to do is drive through Asheville to see it,” Wooten points out. “Target is everywhere.” The writer … well … targets that retailer (and others of its kind) for engendering a mass loss of cultural identity.
“Where I grew up, we had Weil’s Department Store, because of this great family who lived in that town,” the North Carolina native explains. “Now everyone shops in the same stores and watches the same shows.”
Still, nary a Wal-Mart (that’s Wal-Marts if you’re Southern) reference finds its way into Dearly Beloved. Watch, instead, for older landmarks — the Gone With the Wind wedding theme, the barbecue pit, the gospel music.
The play’s three-week run at ACT brings a journey full circle, as three playwrights rediscover home below the Mason-Dixon line. “Our plan has always been to premiere it in the South,” Wooten notes. “We just didn’t know where that would be.”
Dearly Beloved concludes its run with shows at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25 and Saturday, Nov. 26 and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27. Tickets are $20/general, $18/seniors, $10/students. 254-1320.