Playwright Beth Henley, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her first major play, Crimes of the Heart (1978), was back in the thick of the theatre world recently when her new work, The Jacksonian, ran in New York this fall, starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan. As Henley’s 16th play, The Jacksonian is a dark comedy-mystery in which the playwright dives headlong into the sinister past of her home state of Mississippi, where the crimes are not just of the heart.
Mississippi is also the setting of The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980), currently presented at Theatre Charlotte as part of the community theatre’s 86th season. But the violent history of the Deep South is barely hinted at in this play. In Firecracker, the South is sillier than it is sinister.
As the play opens, we see Carnelle Scott (Glynnis O’Donoghue) practicing her tap-dance routine for the Miss Firecracker Contest, and it is her doomed-from-the-start effort to win the pageant that forms the simple structure of the play. Carnelle is clumsy and awkward, but full of enthusiasm, as she stomps around the living room yelling “BOOM!” to the accompaniment of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Carnelle (played on Broadway and in the subsequent film version by Holly Hunter), like her cousin Delmount Williams, just released from an insane asylum, has a “checkered past.” But her aunt’s recent death has inspired her to reform her reputation, and she is counting on the pageant to do the trick.
This living room becomes the playing field for the first act’s action. We meet the four primary characters and begin to learn something of their stories. Designed by James Edward Burns and beautifully constructed, the room subtly represents both the burden of the past on the present and the discrepancies that exist between the well-kept, respectable surroundings and the characters’ rather troubled histories. Paintings and photographs line the walls (including what appears to be a portrait of Eva Peron – ?); antiques, such as a spinning wheel and an old phonograph, have likely been sitting in the same place for decades. There are pretty wine glasses, but not enough for everyone to share in a toast. Cousin Delmount (Berry Newkirk), who has inherited it all, wants to sell off the property and free himself, Carnelle, and his sister Elain (Michelle Fleshman) of its hold. His and Elain’s mother, it appears, was not always the “saint” that folks called her while she lay dying of cancer.
If all of this sounds heavy-duty, it isn’t. Henley is a master of humor, and the fine six-member cast, directed by Tonya Bludsworth, made the most of the characters’ laugh-out-loud lines, delivered in strong Southern accents that were comic without being cloying. Elain tells Carnelle she decided to shorten her visit to her mother-in-law and instead just “drive by and honk twice.” She has left her husband and home, but rather than missing her two sons, she longs for her face cream and “beautiful clocks.” (“No one is going to bake them into a pie!” Elain says when her sons’ welfare is questioned.)
All of the characters are misfits, and their quirks and ignorance and sins and innocence provide rich fodder for jokes. But those quirks also conjure the gothic ghosts of other Southern writers – Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Eudory Welty, for example – and while Henley’s comedy is top-notch, Firecracker lacks the depth, the genius of those writers’ explorations of the human struggle for fairness and belonging and, above all, redemption.
Henley has, nevertheless, infused her humor with poignancy. The current production at Theatre Charlotte gave us glimpses of it, particularly in the character of Popeye Jackson, well played by Amy Wada. She had some moments that, while funny, were genuinely touching, such as her matter-of-fact description to Delmount of how her eyes were damaged as a child, or the fact that she used to make little outfits for bullfrogs, because she had no dolls. There is a thread of sadness that runs throughout the play, and all of the characters in Firecracker have the capacity to inspire our compassion.
As this truly entertaining production continues its run through Sunday, February 9, the cast will no doubt deepen its reach into those emotional layers.
For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.