‘The Miss Firecracker Contest’ wins with laughs and drama
NORTHVILLE, Mich.–You can look at Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest now onstage in a marvelous production at Tipping Point Theatre, from a few angles. It’s been called a part of the Southern Gothic tradition of literature. But caught up in the wacky humor and engaging performances of Tipping Point’s actors, you might wonder how the play fits in that genre. Isn’t it too lighthearted to be considered with the works of Williams and Faulkner?
On the surface, it is indeed just a screwball comedy about a woman who wants to win a local Fourth of July pageant, her eccentric cousins and friend, and a couple of offbeat townsfolk. It’s like your favorite Southern relatives come for a visit. You’ll chuckle and belly-laugh your way through their stories. But listen closely, and you begin to see that each of those amusing relatives are tilted just a bit off their axis.
We first meet Kryssy Becker’s enthusiastic Carnelle practicing her patriotic baton routine for the upcoming competition in a small Mississippi town. Life has thrown this lady some curveballs, and she hasn’t always responded with the best game plan. But she’s determined to turn it around by becoming this year’s Miss Firecracker.
She’s visited by her costume seamstress, Popeye. Played with perfectly endearing charm by Maggie Meyer, Popeye seems not quite of this world – in a good way. She wears a many-pocketed frock from which she pulls her various tools of the trade. She bows deeply to everyone she meets. And she has practiced her craft by designing tiny dresses for frogs.
Carnelle relates her family history to Popeye, a tale of odd death and dysfunction. They discuss the deceased aunt whose house Carnelle currently occupies. Soon, the dead woman’s children– played by Hallie Bee Bard and Patrick Loos–are by turns sashaying and barging into the home, bringing their own sets of problems, as all four misfits run from their past and try to figure out the future.
Each of the actors in director Dani Cochrane’s expertly crafted production brings that special mixture of manic energy and underlying woefulness. Bard’s Elain, who has just fled her husband and children, is a slightly better off version of many Tennessee Williams’ women. She puts on airs, is impulsively generous, and on the verge of making more bad decisions.
With his linen suits and dark mustache, brooding and slightly disturbing obsessions, Loos as Delmount looks like a cross between a down-on-his-luck Southern gentleman and Tony Orlando. Delmount has been away, but there were no yellow ribbons tied around an old oak tree waiting for his return. In fact, there’s a bit of friction, as he was confined to a mental institution after he assaulted Elain’s husband.
Later, we also meet off-the-wall townspeople. Shauna Hitchcock’s Tessy is the overly familiar, weird-ish woman from Delmount’s past. And from mere feet away in this small theatre, you can feel the skeeviness of Aaron Kirby’s Mac Sam, a walking Wikipedia of self-inflicted illnesses. Yet, despite his wayward ways, at least two of the females in this group have been charmed by him. Yeah, that’s Gothic.
The design crew at Tipping Point have created an atmosphere appropriate to this zany and poignant little town. Set designer Barley H. Bauer brings just the right level of old-house feel to the family home and some show-biz shabby to the carnival tent. Costume designer Colleen Ryan-Peters embodies the characters’ unique qualities through their garb. And Neil Koivu’s lighting alters with the moods of the play – light, dark and in between.
As Cochrane says in her program notes, the show itself shines light on the gray areas of life and helps us to laugh through the pain and absurdity. Thank you, Tipping Point, we can use all the illumination and laughs we can get.