The Women's Theatre Festival, whose bywords this season are "Women Are Funny," is in the middle of its second annual festival, running through August 20. Sharp eyes (or anyone who is reading a program) will note that the Festival's acronym is WTF, which, depending on your point of view, may be either a good or a bad thing. WTF is still in its infancy; it was created only last year to promote plays written by and for women, directed by women, containing at least 50% women, and providing, as much as possible, backstage techs that are women. It's a Gal Thing. And it appears to be working quite well.
Season Two, which began July 1, has already run three productions. To open the Festival, WTF "occupied" the new stage at Sonorous Road for a straight 24 hours, "in protest" of the fact that the stories of women are underrepresented in the theatre. You can read more about this event at womenstheatrefestival.com.
WTF's fourth and penultimate show, Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams, opened Thursday night at Meredith College's Studio Theatre, located underneath Jones Auditorium. Written and directed by Maribeth McCarthy, Sweet Tea is the story of a baby shower, um, sorta. Actually, all the action takes place just prior to said baby shower, as two families crash together in an effort to prepare the locale, a downstairs room in the local church, for the shower. As the lights come up, we find Nora (Chelsey Winstead) frantically trying to finalize preparations for what she hopes will be a gigantically successful baby shower for her sister-in-law, Maggie. Things are not going well. In an effort to "pitch in" and be a part of the family, Nora volunteered to coordinate this event without fully understanding what was involved. Rather than delegate, Nora has taken on all aspects of the shower, from food to decorations, and must now be two places at once: the kitchen (offstage right) and the shower room, which makes up the set. Her husband, Quinn (Joey DeSena) is trying to help, but Nora is so frazzled that Quinn just seems to get in the way.
To fully understand Sweet Tea, it is helpful to make — either physically or mentally — a family tree of sorts. Nora is married to Quinn, son of Mama Jubilee (Kelly Stansell). We need to place Mama at the top of the tree; that's where she would put herself, anyway, and the play does revolve around her. Mama has three children, of which Quinn is the only son. Her two daughters are Maggie (played by Hannah Marks on opening night) and Samantha (Lauren Bamford). Lauren has a husband, but we never see (or hear of) him. She also has a son; her raising of the boy is a topic of conversation among the gals. Maggie is married to Jack (Sean Malone), who is the son of Anne (Carla Reck). It is the relationship between Anne and Mama Jubilee that nearly brings about a brawl in the shower room; Mama's open contempt for Jack as a man or a father to her coming grandson ignites Anne's open dislike of Mama. Also, here to help with setup are a young couple still in college, Aiden (Tyler Graeper) and Avery (Liz Webb), who is small and volatile, like a firecracker. Maggie has also invited a long-time and far-away friend, Zee (Rissa Brinson), to come; Zee has known all these folks for quite awhile, but her presence still rankles Mama. Zee is Black and she is a lesbian, two traits to keep her off Mama's good side.
This play is, in actuality, about Mama: Mama who "knows best," who keeps people at arm's length, who micromanages her three children, who never has anything to say about anyone without a barb being added, and who, by her own admission, is just plain mean. She tries to take over arranging the shower; it's for her daughter, after all, so why not? It's Mama's way.
Act I is the comical side of the show; in the opening night performance, Act I didn't go so well. The pace was slow, which seemed at odds with the frantic preparations; a good bit of dialogue was lost due to some "we-gotta-solve-this-traffic-problem" blocking; some relationships were not clearly defined; and some of the humor fell a bit flat. But the acid relationships that had been formed due to Mama's presence, comments, or contempt were quite clearly defined, and they helped to set up Act II, which is the true meat of the play, and was a true step up in execution. The gals nailed it, and no mistake.
There are several things that made this show a good one for WTF: it fits the requirements — it should, because McCarthy wrote this play specifically to debut at this year's WTF. It is not a bear of a technical play: it has up/down lighting, a single set, and most props are already on stage. It is written to take place in a small amount of time, so only one costume apiece, for the most part (Aiden does some quick changing several times in the show). Lastly, it is small enough (barely) to fit into the small Studio Theater at Meredith. It is, however, a bear of a comedy, with some wicked physical shtick and some dance-like blocking that must come off perfectly to keep the cast from running into each other. Lots of activity happens simultaneously on stage. Our eyes are kept moving and things seldom slow down.
Stansell was perfect as Mama, at turns maliciously sweet (Southern style), aggressively protective, thunderstruck, and hurt — Stansell rides an emotional roller coaster in this show and comes out bruised but better for it. Maggie was terrifically played by understudy Hannah Marks, who did not give an understudy's performance; her character was spot-on and near-perfect. Jack, Maggie's hubby, is written as a buffoon and Sean Malone did a crackerjack job of making us believe it. And Bamford must, in an air-headed fashion, be sober, get drunk, act out, and sober up, all in the course of the show; she did so beautifully.
Overall, Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams turned out to be a surprisingly good show, but Act I needs some help (did someone say workshop?). It is a fine purveyor of WTF's mission, and this cast made a debut play work. Writer/director McCarthy has chosen a super cast.
An interesting program note: due to some scheduling difficulties, the role of Nora, on 8/10-11, will be performed by...Maribeth McCarthy! That should be something to watch! In over twenty-five years of theater reviewing, this is the first time I've ever encountered the triple threat of writer/director/understudy! You go girl.
WTF continues its summer festival with Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams through August 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar. The Festival's final show is Miss Lulu Bett, which runs Thursdays thru Sundays, August 10-20 at the Walltown Children's Theater in Durham. For details on both shows, please see the sidebar.