BWW Review: The Barn's Southern-fried and bred SEEING STARS IN DIXIE
Sometimes, for a true-blue, Dixie-born and bred, cotton-clad, iced tea-drinking, fried chicken-eating, gossip-loving Southerner there ain't nothing better than an afternoon spent out on the veranda with good friends, talking about all the people you know and love (and those you don't care all that much for, but heaven forbid you'd admit that to anyone, bless their hearts) on a lazy afternoon when the wind's just up enough to provide a nice breeze. Damn, y'all...wouldn't it be sheer perfection to be doing that right now? Instead, I'm shivering in the early spring chill that descended upon us after a mild winter that had the daffodils in bloom way too early!
What with global warming and all this crazy weather we've been having of late, who knows when we'll be able to do that very thing - trading gossip with loved ones while sittin' and rockin' to the tune of birds chirpin' and cars honkin' in the background - but, thanks to the fine folks at Chaffin's Barn, Nashville's long-lived dinner theater, you can immerse yourself in everything that makes being a Southerner unique, special and better than just about anything (or everything) else: Ron Osborne's Seeing Stars in Dixie, a gentle comedy with a Southern accent that's funny and fun, entertaining and heartwarming...and with just enough sentimentality and pathos to bring a tear to the eye of even the most cynical among us.
Featuring a quintet of charming and engaging players, under the deft and focused direction of Everett Tarlton, Seeing Stars in Dixie (which winds up a month-long run at The Barn this coming Sunday, March 19) is the kind of laugh-out-loud funny that only comes from the heart, as it relates the story of a group of people in Natchez, Mississippi, circa 1956, who are caught up in all the hoopla and hullabaloo of a movie, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, being made right over yonder. It's based in fact: Taylor, Clift, Lee Marvin, Eva Marie Saint and all the accompanying Hollywood types came to Natchez to film Raintree County, a Southern gothic tale that transformed the sleepy, small town into a veritable beehive of Tinsel Town talk and celebrity hijinks that today would result in all sorts of social media coverage that keeps TMZ and Entertainment Tonight on the air night-after-night.
The play's setting - a sweet little tea room called "Clemmie's," operated by a nice lady of the same name (played with complete charm and grace by Lynda Cameron-Bayer, a transplanted Californian who's been in these parts long enough to now call herself practically a native) - affords the perfect backdrop for the play's action that ideally captures the tone of the time and place, affectionately recalling days gone by, enacted by a wonderfully talented cast of actors who breathe vigorous life into the characters created by the playwright.
Cameron-Bayer's ability to alternately fire you up and calm you down with her pitch-perfect performance gives Clemmie the perfect vessel through which to provide much of the play's heart and soul. And Tarlton has surrounded her with an ensemble of actors who ably match her, moment for moment, with their own expansive talents that imbues Seeing Stars... with a sense of bonhomie that can't be manufactured out of whole cloth. Rather, it requires attention to detail and resolute commitment.
If there were ever a character written for Joy Tilley Perryman, she could easily be Seeing Stars' Tootie, the outspoken divorcee/newspaper owner whose brash and outspoken exterior masks a gooey-sweet heart that makes her a force with whom to be reckoned when her friends are threatened. Perryman strides into every scene in much the same way that Patrick Dennis described his Auntie Mame, embodying a certain type of steel magnolia that graces every village on the plain.
As Glease, the versatile and understated Scott Stewart takes on the role of the town's much-talked-about confirmed bachelor, who may be light in the loafers but whose grounded in reality carriage and demeanor ensures that he is accessible to even the most conservative, judgmental audience member. Stewart's performance is at once intense and laidback, creating a character who is multi-dimensional despite the dangers of embodying a smalltown Southern stereotype.
Joy Todd plays Jo Beth, the young woman who has made it this far in life dreaming of becoming Miss Mississippi only to see her hopes dashed thanks to a parade mix-up that has seemingly left her scarred for life (only a year or so before two Miss Mississippis went on to become Miss America, including Natchez' own Lynda Lee Mead, who went on to become the wife of a Memphis eye doctor who made a name for himself all over the world...Lord, have mercy, we're on a tangent now, y'all...). To say that Todd becomes every young woman with stars in her eyes, dreaming of a rhinestone-studded tiara on top of her head, is an understatement. She's just swell!
And the theater community's very own former Miss Nashville, Jenny Norris Light takes on the role of the town troublemaker Marjorie, whose haughty carriage and condescending behavior seems perfectly modulated for the woman she portrays - there's one like her in every Southern small town, to be certain, maybe more than one given the economics of the town and the confidence/breeding that only comes with females of her particular ilk. Regardless of how unlikable Marjorie might be, Norris Light plays her with enough sincerity and a sense of white Southern privilege to make her all-the-more delightful as the play progresses, no matter her shrewishness.
The plot - as simple as it may sound: Clemmie and Marjorie are vying for the right to play a walk-on role in Raintree County, in the presence of Liz Taylor herself - and its ensuing rigmarole and social upheaval of the invasion by all those West Coast types ensure that a good time will be had by all, but there remains the tendency to overplay the parts and reduce Osborne's comedy itself to a one-note, one-off comedy. Yet, amazingly, that never happens. Rather, Tarlton and his actors retain a sense of dignity to these fictional people and the situations in which they find themselves which results in a truly touching and heartfelt denouement that tugs at the heartstrings and, if you are at all like me, make you miss people you've long loved and are now at that great fish fry up in Heaven, where the hushpuppies are finished to a golden brown, the iced tea is cold and cloyingly sweet, and there ain't a bone to be found in your catfish to clutter up your windpipe.
Tarlton's set design captures perfectly the flavor of the play's time period and setting and Jamie Lyn Scott's exquisite costumes clothe the actors in such a way you half expect them to be found in the pages of a Vogue number from the late 1950s. Perryman's props, instinctively and lovingly collected, simply could not be better tokens of that long-ago time (before even I was born) and Bradley Moore's evocative sound design - which floods the venue with time-honored tunes that will take you on your own sentimental journey - is simply top-notch.
My biggest regret about Seeing Stars in Dixie? That I didn't make it out to The Barn early enough in the run to implore you, to cajole you, to threaten you - whatever it takes, dear hearts and gentle people - to go see this lovely show. For that, I am just as sorry as I can be. I know for a fact that mama an' 'em would have loved this sweet show and the people who bring it to life...and that makes me love it all the more. So, you'uns have three more chances to see it before it disappears into the creative ether where all shows go once the final curtain rings down. Don't let that happen now, y'all...just don't!
Seeing Stars in Dixie. By Ron Osborne. Directed by Everett Tarlton. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Highway 100, Nashville. Through March 26. For reservations, call (615) 646-9977. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).