Carlsbad, CA---When my girls were young and we’d take road trips (Los Angeles, Disneyland) we’d play word games to keep them from kvetching about who was touching who. There were no iPads or electronic games and they tired of their Barbie Dolls all too soon. One of the games we played was Tilly Williams. “Tilly Williams was odd and queer, but not peculiar, she liked…” It was a silly game with double vowels and consonants but it made them think.
It also got me thinking about the characters in Beth Henley’s 1984 “The Miss Firecracker Contest” now in a high-energy production at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad through June 29th. Director Daren Scott has tapped into her ‘odd, queer AND peculiar’ characters, with gusto and with a cracker-jack ensemble to back him up.
Set in the mid 1980’s in Brookhaven, Mississippi where every year, on the 4th of July, they have a ‘Miss Firecracker Contest’. Carnelle Scott (Samantha Ginn) is honing in on her skills for the talent section of the contest, as a baton twirling, tap-dancing cheer leader who has trouble twirling a baton and doing more than Bada Boom in her majorette tap boots when we first meet up with her.
She wants this title so badly she can taste it. She’s even dyed her hair bright red to match her red, white and blue costume in honor of the occasion. If she wins this contest perhaps she can, once and for all, get rid of a nickname that has haunted her for years, ‘Miss Hot Tamale’. Even though no one, including Carnelle thinks she will win, she is determined to go ahead with it anyway. There is too much at stake here for her.
For one, she can leave Brookhaven with her head held high and start over again. She grew up living with her aunt, who has since passed, her cousin Delmount, (Justin Lang) newly released from a mental facility (he has nightmares about women’s body parts) and his sister Elain, (Kristin Woodburn) who was once Miss Firecracker herself. Elain is now unhappily married and on the verge of leaving her husband. She’s back to give the keynote speech at the Pageant, “My Life As A Beauty”.
Both cousins tolerated her as she grew up, still talk about her behind her back as not being the sharpest tack in the pack, consider her a looser and furthermore Delmount is planning on selling the family home, everything in it and moving to Florida. His now deceased mother willed the house to him. She’s a whole other story.
If you ever had the opportunity to see playwright Henley’s 1978/79 Pulitzer Prize winning “Crimes of the Heart”, (which was adapted to a screen play in 1986) that was also set in Miss., Hazelhurst to be exact, you will get an idea of the characters she’s familiar with.
It is about three sisters who were raised in a dysfunctional home who come together for a family reunion. Henley was born in Jacksonville, Miss., and is one of four sisters. I’m guessing some of this might be biographical in nature, or a composite of many she has run across in her dealings with Mississippians’.
The characters in “The Miss Firecracker Contest” almost make your head spin as if watching a tennis match. In the middle of her checking out how firm or not her upper arms look to the possible flab on her bottom, Carnelle gets a visit from Popeye Jackson (Melissa Coleman-Reed), a quirky seamstress with glasses and a spyglass.
She’s going to take Carnelle’s measurements so she can make her sparkling red, white and blue costume. Before she has a chance to do anything though, she goes into a swoon over Delmont, whose photographs she just been admiring. It’s quite a sight. Between his bewildered look and her adoring eyes, Coleman-Reed sets the stage for some surprising follow up. She has just enough innocence, coyness and oddball attitude to make this another of Henley’s off beat and well-liked characters. She convinces utterly.
Then there is Tessy Mahoney (Lauren King) pageant stage manager who sees the return of Delmont as an opportunity for another romp in the hay with him. She’s just bad news for Delmont but refuses to take no for an answer. Tessy is just the person you love to hate here, especially since she’s full of righteous indignation, jealousy and rage over the fact she’s not able to get her own way. King plays the part to the hilt.
Eddie Yaroch is Mac Sam who makes his appearance backstage in the dressing room where Carnelle is nervously getting ready to parade in her makeshift red gown. He’s walking around with a case of VD he picked up from Carnelle before she turned the page on her wild, promiscuous ways.
He’s a character you might see in any carnival setting carrying a handful of balloons, a change maker strapped to his waist, suspenders and a bowler hat with scraggly hair sticking out. He also does this wild cigarette hand, hat, nose and ear trick he was quite adept at. Nice little touch. Yaroch is perfect as the cool, loveable but fatalistic clown who has more diseases than Carter has little liver pills but would rather walk around with them than be treated for them.
Justin Lang and Kristin Woodburn nail the brother sister symbiosis. Neither has a sterling relationship with the other, nor an admirable past. However like so many other siblings, collective memories tend to regroup and bring together, as shown in ‘Firecracker”. Lang tops the charts in this piece as a study in slow growth that actually turns to authenticity and possibly caring. Woodburn’s Elain is like Mr. Cellophane, you can see right through her.
Once again ever-versatile Samantha Ginn gives us a performance worthy of us making the connection of how the underdog fights back in the light of adversity. It’s not that she thinks she will win the contest, it’s the determination that she shows that she’s willing to scramble to give it try and let the cards fall where they may. She is heartwarming, genuine, bittersweet and I must admit very funny.
Lighting and sound designs are credited to Chris Renda and Robert May. With firecrackers going off in the background in Act II and silhouettes of Carnelle marching and parading in front of a huge painted flag, the festivities come to life. Kacia Castelli costumes are 80’s real.
Perhaps the slight of hand trick that Mac Sam shows us has the same effect that Carnelle has in believing that while we are in the moment we forget the illusion and trust it’s the real McCoy. Henley’s characters and Scott’s direction put us on the right track to that end.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 29th
Organization: New Village Arts
Production Type: Southern Gothic
Where: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village,