The Dixie Swim Club by Asheville-based playwright team Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, isn’t a new work (for a while the trio was introducing a new play nearly every year on the Asheville Community Theatre stage) but it’s certainly appropriate for the season. “Five women, one set” is the tagline for Swim on the playwrights’ website — the setting is a beach house on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
(Photo by Ewa Skowska)
For those familiar with Jones-Hope-Wooten’s other works (Dearly Beloved, Christmas Belles, Southern Hospitality, ‘Til Beth Do Us Part and The Hallelujah Girls), Swim (with its Southern-cute name and cast of female characters) promises more of the same: Slapstick antics, mile-a-minute punch lines, big hair, Southernisms and stereotypes. “I’m dryer than a cow chip in a dust storm,” one character announces in the opening scene of Swim. And it goes from there.
Jones-Hope-Wooten come from just the sort of combined background that results in hokey/funny, sitcom-like theater. Wooten wrote for “The Golden Girls,” Jones co-authored the funeral comedy Dearly Departed (release on film as Kingdom Come), Hope wrote for Warner Bros. and Disney Studios.
Swim has a sort of “Golden Girls” feel from the outset. Five women, age 44, meet for an annual beach weekend. They’ve done this each year since college, where they all became acquainted as members of the same swim team. Sheree (played by LaNita Cloninger) is the responsible and organized one, with her healthy snacks and her exercise schedule. Dinah (Robin Oswald) is the career-driven one, with a successful Atlanta law practice and no time for romance (though plenty of time for cocktails). Lexie (Honor Moor) is the man-crazy one, who can barely finish one divorce before she’s met her next Mr. Right. Vernadette (Cary Nichols) has a big heart and a bad-luck streak that manifests in a deadbeat husband, two troubled children and a constant stream of injuries. Jeri Neal (Ava King) is the one who became a nun — that is, until she makes her entrance in the opening scene with a huge surprise to spring on her friends.
Swim is written in four scenes over two acts. The first two-and-a-half scenes are fun and light and reveal surprises one after the next that are off-the-wall enough to feel unexpected while, at the same time, maintaining a fairly predictable pace. At each meeting, the women come together to catch up on their crazy lives — Vernadette’s son is in prison, Lexi is getting another divorce — and dash off zingers (PMS is mentioned in the Bible because it says, “Mary rode Joseph’s ass all the way to Bethlehem”) that get big audience laughs. (If lines like this seem potentially more groan- than laugh-inducing, as was my inclination, know that the near-capacity crowd was practically doubled over with laughter, including the octogenarian couple in the seats beside me. And the man behind me was repeating zingers like, “Until I got married I did not know what happiness was. By then it was too late.”)
The second and third scenes are each set five years apart, making the characters 49 and then 54 years old. At first the ages are a little disconcerting because they’re important to the play, but the actresses don’t look to be all the same age. Happily, their lines successfully create a sense of homogeneity and the pace of the performance takes on a comfortable rhythm with repeated phrases (“The faster we swim, the sooner we win” is the swim team mantra, that, over time, takes on new meaning) and each scene’s own drama that arises and must be dealt with.
It’s at the end of the third scene that the play suddenly takes a turn to more serious subject matter — something atypical for a Jones-Hope-Wooten production. The incident is never made to be the center of the action, and is instead used to show a deepening friendship between two unlikely allies. That sets up the final scene in which the characters return to the beach house having aged more than 20 years.
The final scene feels, at its start, like more of a comic romp (pant suits and old lady wigs) that it turns out to be. I won’t give away the ending, but be aware that what begins as a light and fluffy comedy proves to be, when all is said and done, a touching and thought-provoking meditation on aging and friendship. It’s also about what ultimately makes up a life and what, in the end, truly matters. Be prepared to get deep — Swim really does go there in an unexpected and rather refreshing way. After the play finished many groups of viewers clustered outside in small groups, discussing the final scene in hushed tones. It has that sort of effect.
The Dixie Swim Club runs at ACT through Sunday, June 19. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
Written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. Directed by Michael Lilly. Cast: Honor Moor, Cary Nichols, Robin Oswald, Ava King and LaNita Cloninger. Crew: Jill Summers (technical direction, scenic painting), Rob Bowen (scenic design), Deborah Austin (costume design), Dave Bortle (lighting), Jessica Lane (props), Adam Cohen (sound), Beth Mayo (stage manager), Maggie Harven (assistant stage manager), Stacy Hines (wardrobe), Ewa Skowska (light board).