“It’s a stupid meaningless contest! You’ll do fine!”
Beth Henley’s tough.
Don’t get me wrong. The woman has one more Pulitzer Prize and one more Academy Award nomination for her writing than I do. “Crimes of the Heart,” the play which got all the award love and for which she’s best known, is a fine piece of work which I quite like. As I was saying just the other day, Beth Henley’s sort of like Tennessee Williams without all the tragedy. Her plays are peopled by Southern eccentrics with dreams as big as their hearts. These characters just lack most of the essential skills to accomplish those dreams. But rather than descend into madness or kill themselves or be killed by others, Henley’s creations just keep on going. Like characters in a lot of Chekhov plays, it’s their determination to keep living, and keep striving, to one day make a better life for those who come after them if not themselves, that makes them noble. These are characters you can’t help rooting for, and caring about, often in spite of yourself, even as you’re laughing at the comedy which is their lives.
The problematic thing about Henley’s work, and the script for “The Miss Firecracker Contest” is a good example, is that it comes from a school of playwriting in the late 1970s/early 1980s that doesn’t hold up particularly well. The characters are frequently given peculiar names, like a woman named Popeye, and strange backstories to go along with them. Not for any good reason. Just because the playwright can, they do. This style of playwriting, while throwing off a lot of the musty conventions of plays that came before, nevertheless seems curiously straitjacketed by old ideas of how theater needs to be presented. For instance, you only have one set, with three walls surrounding it. If it must be changed, it happens at the act break, because wholesale environmental scene shifts are just too cumbersome. If something needs to happen outside this box, then someone’s just going to have to come in from offstage and report on it. It’s as if, for the space of about ten to twenty years, playwrights forgot that only TV and film need to be bound by literal reality. Theater has the imagination of the audience at its disposal. You are bound by nothing. You can do anything.
Another thing about a lot of plays written at this time is that they don’t really seem to be “about” anything. As if there aren’t any larger societal issues at play that put these characters in any context. As if their problems are just their problems and not symptomatic of anything beyond them. So, if you’re a straight white person in the world of these plays, the worst thing that can happen to you is a broken heart, a boring marriage, a bad reputation in a small town, a case of syphilis. But not tragic, Ibsen’s “Ghosts” syphilis. This is funny syphilis.
Starting Gate Productions’ current presentation of “The Miss Firecracker Contest” is a good production. There is good acting by the whole cast, good direction by David Coral, and some interesting design choices involved. But it strikes me the same way the Guthrie’s recent production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” did. It was a good production. But it was still a production of “The Two Gentleman of Verona,” which isn’t one of Shakespeare’s better, or even more coherent, plays. There’s a reason it’s not done very often. Other plays are better. If you choose to do a script like “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” the script is only going to allow you to be so good. All the good actors, directors and designers in the world can only do so much if the basics of the story aren’t giving them much raw material with which to work.
Carnelle (Bethany Ford) is determined to overcome her bad girl reputation and win respect via the unlikely avenue of a beauty pageant, specifically the 4th of July event, The Miss Firecracker Contest. She has enlisted the aid of Popeye (Heidi Jedlicka), her seamstress friend, and Elaine (Jean Salo), her cousin and a former Miss Firecracker herself, to help give her a competitive edge. Carnelle’s other cousin Delmount (Grant Henderson), recently released from a mental institution (as a plea bargain to avoid jail time after a bar fight), gets swept up in the whole thing as a source of moral support. Later on, two well-meaning stalkers and former love interests - one for Carnelle (Mac Sam, played by Dale Pfeilsticker), one for Delmount (Terry, played by Melissa Rutman) - appear to liven things up as the pageant gets underway. Elaine is using the pageant as an excuse to make a break from her husband, who apparently just loves her too much. We never meet Elaine’s husband - he just calls to check that she made it to her cousin’s home safely, and sends her flowers (gee, file a restraining order, honey, or better yet, send him to me instead.) Popeye decides she’s in love with Delmount, and pursues him in her own awkward way as aggressively as Carnelle courts that winner’s tiara.
There are hints of darker currents here and there underneath all the comedy - Delmount’s disturbing dreams, the fact that Carnelle has spent her life losing people she loves to early deaths, selling off the family home and possessions, racism, sexism, childhood trauma - but nothing really sticks, or cuts very deep. The script itself seems determined to adopt the relentless optimism of the characters - “Everything will be OK. Somehow. There are no other options.” Consequently, the director and his actors, all of whom have dug much deeper into darker territory in the past, aren’t allowed to unleash most of the weapons they have at their disposal. There are moments you can actually see them resisting the urge to go for it - mostly because there’s no “it” to go for. They’d merely end up going over the top, and they’re all too smart to fall into that trap. So laughs, not drama or melodrama, are the order of the day.
The set design by Todd Edwards makes more sense in reverse - once you’ve seen the look for Act Two, you understand the look for Act One. The reason is that the three large scenic elements - right, left and center - all rotate at the intermission. The three carnival tents for the pageant in Act Two were hidden on the back side of the home interior pieces of Carnelle’s house in Act One. The carnival setting comes off a little better. The house side of the set, because it’s doing double duty, ends up in a collection of odd shapes, particularly around the front door up center. The dark edges of the wall pieces seem to want to indicate that we’re getting a random cross section of the fuller wall - something that exists but which we don’t see completely. For me, it had the unfortunate effect of making me think the house had burned down around poor beleaguered Carnelle, and these chunks were all that remained. So the poor dear was putting on a brave face living in a home without walls. Not totally out of the question in a play of this period, but not what the production intended, I think.
One more nod has to go to the costume design by Emily Heaney. Her use of red, white, and/or blue across all the characters who shared the stage at any given moment was very clever. So clever that it only occurred to me as I thought back on the evening afterward. I appreciated the subtlety. It was there without banging you over the head visually the whole time. The pageant costumes were deliberately loud but the other clothing had the feeling of “just things the characters were wearing,” and that’s often hard to do well. Here, it’s done well.
“The Miss Firecracker Contest” is a funny play about a bunch of genial, well-meaning misfits who refuse to be beaten down by reality, or often even to live in it. It’s a pleasant way to pass an evening, by people who know what they’re doing. So, for that reason, despite the sometimes creaky script, the production is still...
“The Miss Firecracker Contest” runs through May 24, 2009 at Starting Gate’s home on the Mounds Theater stage - 1029 Hudson Road in St. Paul. Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $18, or $16 for Students & Seniors. For tickets and more information, call 651-645-3503 or visit www.startinggate.org