The opening night of Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest started with a bang at Raleigh Little Theatre . Audience members were greeted by the pleasant sounds of patriotic music, and it was hard to not think of an old town’s summertime activities. Although a small cast was at work, they all kept the audience laughing and captivated through this humorous yet heartbreaking Southern-Gothic tale.

This story was originally produced in Los Angeles in 1980. Shortly after Firecracker hit the stage, Henley was awarded the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Crimes of the Heart. She was also nominated for the 1981 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and a Tony Award for Best Play in 1982. Miss Firecracker focuses on a young woman who desperately wants to win The Miss Firecracker Contest. She and the other kooky characters lead us on an adventure with unexpected twists and turns all while keeping the audience laughing.

Carnell Scott (played by Kirsten Ehlert) of Brookhaven, Mississippi, is a young woman who is determined to change her past by winning the Miss Firecracker beauty pageant. Carnell is planning to wow the judges and show them that she is Miss Firecracker material by tap dancing and tumbling to “The Star-Spangled Banner” while clenching sparklers in her teeth. Ehlert bounces about, entertaining the audience with her smile and exuberant personality.

Soon enough we learn about a wonderful, bespectacled, awkward, young woman who goes by the name of Popeye (Laurell Bell) and is Carnell’s seamstress. She began her career by making outfits for bullfrogs because her family could not afford dolls. In Bell’s first on-stage appearance with RLT she warms the hearts of all with her quirky yet adorable self. We are also introduced to Carnell’s orphaned cousins Elain and Delmount, with whom she was raised as a sibling. Elain (Sharon Galluzzo) is a prissy former Miss Firecracker who has just left her wealthy husband. Delmount (Aaron Young) has just left a lunatic asylum and is tired of his menial job of “scraping up dead dogs from the road.” He now aspires to be a student of philosophy so he can “Let everyone know why we’re here.” However, he must sell the oppressive Victorian home that has brought the family so much grief. Later on, in Act II, we meet Mac Sam (Larry Evans), a past boyfriend of Carnell who is suffering from a curable disease but refuses to take treatments, and Tessie Mahoney (Becca Easley), the quirky pageant coordinator. All the characters have charming, unique traits that make them relatable to the audience.

Shawn Smith, the director of the show, is accompanied by his creative team: Jim Zervas, technical director and lighting, property manager Ann-Marie Crosmun, sound designer Becca Easley, and stage manager Dan Eckert. The team creates the perfect setting from the dimly lit living room in Act I to the fireworks display in Act II, along with period costumes and live sound.

It is clear that all involved with this production enjoy and put every amount of effort into making the characters as believable as possible. There is a great balance between the humor and deeper emotions that are carefully interwoven throughout this beautiful story.

Miss Firecracker continues through 2/26. For details, see the sidebar.