The Ghost & Spice Productions’ presentation of The Miss Firecracker Contest by award-winning Mississippi playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) is a rib-tickling Southern Gothic comedy about a misfit and perennial screw-up named Carnelle Scott (Tracey Coppedge), who hopes to gain redemption and a measure of acceptance by her fellow residents of Brookhaven, MS, by winning the town’s annual Miss Firecracker Contest. The only problem is, Carnelle does not have the “right stuff” to win even a small-town beauty contest. She is plump and not particularly pretty or graceful, and she is spectacularly untalented. Her plans to twirl batons, wave sparklers, and tap-dance to the “Star Spangled Banner” are a sure-fire recipe for yet another public humiliation — and further bruises to her already damaged self-esteem.

Tracey Coppedge brings a wonderful sense of seriousness and determination to the wacky role of Carnelle, who is not exactly the Picture of Grace and Beauty that most beauty contest winners are. Nevertheless, Carnelle thinks she has a chance, no matter how ludicrous her act appears to her friends and the audience at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC, where Ghost & Spice Productions will perform The Miss Firecracker Contest on Oct. 11-14 and 18-20.

While Tracey Coppedge is getting guffaws, playing it straight, Lenore Field and Melissa Lozoff are getting belly-laughs with their antics as Carnelle’s snooty cousin and former winner Miss Firecracker Contest Elain Rutledge and Carnelle’s goofy four-eyed friend and seamstress for the pageant Popeye Jackson. Rus Hames is amusing as Carnelle’s former boyfriend Mac Sam, an aging hippy carnival worker consumed by an untreated case of an unmentionable social disease, and Michelle Byars is a scream as Mac Sam’s hideously ugly former fling and the current Miss Firecracker Contest pageant stage manager Tessy Mahoney, who would like nothing better than to renew old acquaintance — say, out under the willows — with Mac Sam.

But it is Jeff Alguire who brings down the house with his side-splitting impersonation of Carnelle’s oddball cousin Delmount Williams, who wears a smoking jacket and pretends to puff a pipe to appear more sophisticated. Fresh off an involuntary stint in the state loony bin, Delmount has returned to sell the family home that he inherited out from under Carnelle, who still lives there, and his sister Elain, who might have expected to share the inheritance.

Delmount Williams is a juicy comic character, and Jeff Alguire really sinks his teeth into this meaty role. Alguire employs an assortment of eye-rolls, pretentious poses struck, and constant fussing with his thinning, greasy hair to get the laughter rolling before he even has time to uncork one of Delmount’s quirky observations about the denizens of Brookhaven and his persecution at the hands of well-meaning family, who thought he needed to be institutionalized.

The director has coaxed crackerjack comic characterization from the entire ensemble. Employing a new seating configuration to heighten the hilarity, the director works with set designer Jeff Alguire, lighting and sound designer Rus Hames, costume designer Lenore Field, and properties mistresses Tracey Coppedge and Michelle Byars to make The Miss Firecracker Contest go off with a bang, like the Roman candles that Carnelle uses in her act. Unlike Carnelle’s Miss Firecracker Contest act, this Ghost & Spice production is a real winner.

Ghost & Spice Productions presents The Miss Firecracker Contest Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 11-13 and 18-20, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($12 students and seniors), except all tickets are half price on Thursdays. 888/239-9253. Ghost & Spice Productions: Internet Movie Database: