review by Janet I. Martineau
Alien abductions. Disney World. Snakes in toilets. Spontaneous human combustion. Ghosts. Voodoo curses. Beauty pageants. Killer swamp alligators.
“The Sugar Bean Sisters,” now playing at the Midland Center for the Arts, romps through the world of pop culture and urban legend with two hours of non-stop zaniness. Good lord, this show is hilarious with one-liners that just come out of nowhere....like “it makes my ass want to chew tobacco.”
Methinks playwright Nathan Sanders is also spoofing James Bond when one of the characters requests that her Dr. Pepper be “stirred lightly with a finger.”
Bill Anderson Jr. directed the oddball “Urinetown” to competition-winning brilliance. And his odder yet “Sugar Bean” is equally strongly directed. We say this because as cuckoo and crazy as this show is, its characters and their plight are at the same time endearing. Difficult balance to achieve, but he and the cast do.
But, then, Anderson cast two old pros in the lead roles as the two feuding and fussing Nettles sisters of Sugar Bean, Fla. -- an eerie swampland town a few miles outside of Disney World.
Susie Polito is Faye Nettles, the manly sister who constantly eats cookies and makes sandwiches for the aliens from Mars she is expecting to make a return visit. And R. Jeannie Gilbert is her dimwit sister Willie Mae, who has inherited but hidden somewhere on the property her grapefruit fortune and wears a Eva Gabor wig to cover up her bald head.
These two chew up the script and spit it out from start to finish, with Polito getting the lion’s share of killer one-liners like the one noted above while Gilbert excels with her deer-in-the-headlights, nobody-is-home expression.
To detail much further what they are feuding and fussing about would spoil the twists and turns of the wacko storyline, but suffice it to say it includes a father accused of mass murder, a Mormon bishop, the local reptile woman, and a mysterious stranger from New Orleans, among many other things.
Seeing Gilbert in her bald state is quite a shock to the system visually, and watching Polito have to climb up on the roof of the house is unnerving, but wallowing in the energy they put forth when they spar is sheer delight.
And like all good actresses, it is often their body English which carries the day -- although in this show, their lines are also dandy stuff indeed. I’ll never be able to hear Patsy Cline sing “I Fall to Pieces” again without thinking of its reference in this show.
Providing superb support is Sonja Roden as the Reptile Woman, who can smell a snake (and a rat) a mile away, and Marla Bearinger as the bird-like mysterious visitor who delivers one hell of a plot twist.
Jim Ely’s set and all of its props seal the deal, as do the costumes, collectively creating the atmosphere of the strange Sugar Bean, Fla.
Playwright Sanders has one strange mind, but to his credit he ties up all the loose ends and delivers a satisfying, and hilarious, ending to “The Sugar Bean Sisters.” How nice to see a family comedy that is, well, really a family comedy.