Real magnolias

A “good ol’ girl” is distinctly Southern, of course.

What she’s not is the fragile-yet-manipulative Southern belle, the bosomy Hee-Haw bimbo with the unintelligible drawl, or the peroxide-blonde party girl in a souped-up Trans Am … or, for that matter, any of the other tiresome stereotypes that still plague Southern women today.

“A Good Ol’ Girl,” as the script to Good Ol’ Girls itself puts it, “knows that big hair and a big heart do not mean a small mind.”

The six-character musical, based on excerpts from 23 novels and short stories by award-winning authors Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, was adapted for the stage and written in part by its director, UNC-Chapel Hill professor Paul Ferguson. The play, produced by the North Carolina Theatre, glances into Southern women’s lives from girlhood to sexual awakening to old age to death — and even beyond.

The roles are handled by Amanda Blackburn, Jodi Beck, Bianca Carragher, Julie Oliver, Katherine Rogers and Meme Simmons — with the actresses’ real names used as their character names. Spoken dialogue is enhanced with tunes written by Nashville singer/songwriters Marshall Chapman (besides her own stuff, she’s penned tunes for Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett and Tanya Tucker) and Matraca Berg (who wrote Deanna Carter’s recent chart-topper, “Strawberry Wine,” as well as five other number-one singles).

In fact, it was Berg — who knew the now-Lumberton-based Lee Smith when they both lived in Nashville in the 1970s — who sowed the seeds for the musical.

Director Ferguson reports that Berg told him, “If my songs could grow into novels, I’d like them to grow into novels that Lee Smith wrote.” (Similarly, Smith had once confided to Ferguson, “If I’d had my way, [my novel] The Devil’s Dream wouldn’t have been a novel at all; it would have been a CD.”)

So Berg called on Chapman for her songwriting prowess, and then the two quickly brought aboard Ferguson — who had, several years’ prior, adapted The Devil’s Dream into a critically acclaimed musical. Smith and her former North Carolina State University creative-writing student, the now-Boston-based McCorkle, were enthusiastic about the project from the get-go.

But Good Ol’ Girls is particularly dear to Ferguson — and for highly personal reasons.

“I was raised in a matriarchy, brought up by my grandmother and taught by so many strong, smart Southern women,” he relates. “Lee’s characters ring true to me and resonate with my own experience. Jill’s characters are a little harder-edged, but have the same effect. I recognize these women. I’m married to a Southern woman, who’s beautiful and smart and nothing like the lovely but empty-headed Southern bimbos portrayed in popular culture for so long.

“The idea that somehow, if you’re a woman from the South, your pace of speech is slow, your education was for the purpose of gaining a ‘Mrs.,’ and you must want multiple children … those are all things that Lee and Jill and Marshall and Matraca write against consistently. “Their characters are fiercely independent,” he continues. “Women who insist on having the career they want and building it by themselves, who love their families and their romantic partners without those being the only things in their lives.

“Above all,” he says, “the show is meant to be a joyous rebuttal to misguided stereotypes against contemporary Southern women. It has sass and attitude — but so do most of the Southern women I know.”

Up close and out loud

Both Smith and McCorkle’s work is particularly well-suited to the stage, largely because of their distinctly “oral” narrative styles.

“Lee, for example, will nest stories one inside another, and have her characters pass them on from one person or even one generation to another,” Ferguson points out. “It’s like front-porch storytelling, and it is very much grounded in an oral tradition. … In fact, much of Smith’s writing, especially, works better when it’s read aloud.”

Vignettes in the two-act Good Ol’ Girls range from the bawdy to the sacred. In one scene, a high-school teacher primly offers a cautionary “petting lesson” to an adolescent girl.

But what Ferguson calls perhaps the most moving monologue involves Alice, a small-town beauty-shop owner.

Alice owns the only “sophisticated” salon in town, which wins her the questionable assignment of doing pre-funeral hair and makeup for the local dearly departed. She speaks her monologue, adapted from Smith’s novel Family Linen, while prettifying her own dead mother for her open casket.

“There’s a profound moment in the monologue when Alice understands things about herself and her mother that she has never seen until that very second,” relates Ferguson. “Then the show takes it a step beyond death, [with the mother saying], ‘I want my funeral to be a happy time. I want people to tell stories and drink Scotch, and say with a smile, ‘Well, this was a loss. This was a big damn loss’.'”

So don’t attend a production of Good Ol’ Girls expecting to quietly sit with folded hands. Even before the action starts, the cast, the band and the audience come together in what Ferguson calls a “drift in” — an informal pre-play gathering that sets the tone for the whole experience.

“The form of the play — which is called epic theater — is set up as a conversation with the audience,” Ferguson explains. In other words, characters turn and speak directly to the assembled crowd about what they’re thinking and feeling … and audience members are free to respond.

“Then the music kicks in,” continues Ferguson, “and it’s so engaging that it moves directly into your body and gets you moving. And each of the songs is also a narrative — a short story on its own.”

Maybe there’s no such thing as the quintessential Southern woman — but Ferguson, nevertheless, pegs the “typical” Good Ol’ Girl audience as “a group of women friends who’ve gone out to dinner, had a few beers and just want to have a really good time.”

Those same women, he adds, often come back the second night of a two-night run with husbands, brothers, children … as Ferguson puts it, “to have different kinds of conversations about what the play has to say about women.”

So good ol’ boys are welcome, too?

Sure, says Ferguson.

“You can become an honorary Good Ol’ Girl,” he elaborates. “All the men working [behind the scenes] on the show are constantly trying to be declared Good Ol’ Girls.

“When you’re anointed a Good Ol’ Girl, it’s a proud moment.”

The Diana Wortham Theatre’s Mainstage Series presents Good Ol’ Girls on Friday, Oct. 3 and Saturday, Oct. 4; both shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $28/general, $26/seniors and students, and $10/kids. For tickets and more information, call 257-4530, or visit like545 viewsArt News

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