|From left, Stephanie Mattos, Mandee Wunderle, Erich Williiams, Lisa Bader and Spencer Wunderle|
review and photos by janet i. martineau
Goodness, what a motley crew of characters playwright Beth Henley concocted for her southern gothic play “The Miss Firecracker Contest.”
A beauty queen wannabe with a checkered past and her former boyfriend who is dying of a dozen ailments ...a former beauty queen with a drinking problem and who has left her family and her brother who is stark raving mad and supposedly can wiggle his ears...a seamstress given to inspecting everything with a magnifying glass and who wears black high-top tennis shoes...and a beauty pageant minion who is just plain cuckoo and hung up on the former beauty queen.
But, then, Henley also crafted the Pulitzer-winning ”Crimes of the Heart,” about three southern sisters with major issues.
Fortunately the Pit and Balcony Community Theater production of “Firecracker”, which opened Friday night, has cast it well. All five characters carry these oddballs strongly while at the same time making us love them and understand their plight.
They are so human -- feuding and fussing and fighting among themselves, since three of the five are related, but let a stranger threaten any one of them and they lock into a unified force.
And might we say too....it’s about time on who directed this show. An actor’s actor who has played many a oddball role herself.
Ann Russell-Lutenske makes her P&B play directing debut here after acting in too many of its plays to count over a huge swath of time, as well as a little professional work as well early on in her life.
It is a solid directing debut. Not just in the strong acting ensemble she keeps on task but in the richly detailed set (designed by Saginawian Chris Largent, in his final year of college at Emerson in Boston) and the fun costuming.
If there is a complaint, it is that at times Henley’s script drags and that, here and there, some of the cast members need to enunciate their words more clearly rather than mumble or rush them. But those are minor moments.
What is interesting is that Lisa Bader, who plays the former beauty queen, hasn’t done a show in 10 years and that Tabitha Wright, the beauty pageant minion, is 30 years old and making her acting debut -- and they are two of the strongest actors in this play.
Bader in particular nails her former beauty queen, still so in love with herself if not her life. Every movement, every inflection in her words are right on and she tends to steal more than a few scenes.
Wright has a very small role, and is one of the actora who needs to work on diction, but her body English is pure goofy.
Mandee Wunderle plays the title role, the beauty pageant wannabe who has dyed her hair red for the talent part of the contest she hopes she will be accepted into.
Wunderle is a heart-breaker. You can just so totally feel her character’s insecurity and deep need to win this title -- while at the same time having to deal with all the crap she has to put up with at the expense of the characters surrounding her.
This play, written in 1979, remains relevant today, maybe even more so than when it was written, in light of all the reality shows on television today populated by desperate people very much like her.
We won’t divulge what does happen, since that is part of the show. But Wunderle stays with her to the end and delivers one of the most heart-warming characters in the world of plays.
Stephanie Mattos plays the seamstress with a wonderful sense of quirky. Spencer Wunderle is the mad ear-wiggler and plays him in a way that creates unease in viewers since we never know when he is going to erupt and he is kinda scary when he does. And Erich Williams as the ailing ex (name is Mac Sam....so southern) sounds like he is going to die right in front of us despite his steely manner.
Interesting show that evokes both humor and pathos in equal doses.