Back in the Spring of 1980 actor Ronald Reagan was our newly elected President, AFL-CIO union leader George Meany had passed away, Exxon has posted an unprecedented profit of $3 billion dollars, and while the activist edge of the Women's Movement of the 1970s was relatively fragmented and mute, a young playwright names Beth Henley premiered a two-act play entitled The Miss Firecracker Contest in Los Angeles that would resonate with the passage of time as a contemporary and vivid meditation upon the nature of personal identity and public perception.
Firecracker was the first play Henley had written after her Pulitzer Prize winning debut, Crimes of the Heart, and eventually moved to Broadway, where it featured a relatively unknown actress known as Holly Hunter who performed the lead role in both the Broadway and movie versions.
As a story, The Miss Firecracker Contest belongs in the group of Southern Gothic Comedies for which Henley is best known. Pit & Balcony Theatre is staging an engaging translation of this contemporary classic on March 15-17th and 22-24th with showtimes at 8:00 PM and Sundays shows at 3 PM. Tickets are $18.00 and available by calling the Pit & Balcony Box office at 989-754-6587 or by going to www.pitandbalconytheatre.com.
Essentially this work tells the tale of Carnelle, an irrepressible young woman who thinks that winning the local beauty contest will restore her soiled reputation and make her a 'somebody' in her small Mississippi community. The family and friends who help her along the way are a dysfunctional bunch who tackle life in their own peculiar ways. They consist of a former beauty queen cousin, Elain, who comes to offer advice and also run away from her husband and children. Meanwhile, Elain's brother, Delmount, has come home from the mental institution to sell the family house and provide Carnelle another way out. And then wandering into this chaos is Carnelle's seamstress - the sweet and strange Popeye, who falls in love with Delmount. Throughout the course of their interaction, the general conclusion that all these characters reach is that even if the 'real' you is not the fulfillment of your hopes, you will be more at peace if you learn to define and accept your own true self.
With a cast that consists of Mandee Wunderle as Carnelle Scott, Stephanie Mattos as Popeye Jackson, Lisa Bader as Elain Rutledge, Spencer Wunderle as Delmount Williams, Tabbatha Wright as Tessy Mahoney, and Erich Williams as Mac Sam, this P&B production of The Miss Firecracker Contest is also the directorial debut for Ann Russell-Lutenske, a familiar face and formidable acting force on the local theatrical scene.
When asked what she feels are the qualities that make this work such an effective and significant piece of theatre on the contemporary landscape, Russell points to the themes of identity and redemption. “Who these characters are and how they identify themselves, sometimes falsely or incorrectly, is something that I feel we all do at times,” reflects Russell. “The main character is trying to win this silly beauty pageant in order to redeem herself; and has made some questionable choices that have earned her a reputation as a hot tamale. She wants to redeem herself and leave the town in a blaze of glory; and in the end, I think realizes that all of those aspirations are false and that a lifetime spent trying to be someone she isn't can only be fixed by accepting herself. It really does have a sweet, sweet ending.”
Ann notes that she saw Firecracker back in 1981 in New York when Holly Hunter was starring and the play stuck with her over the years. “Interestingly, my lead actress, Mandee Wunderle, got hold of the play awhile back and is pretty obsessed with it, too, which is wonderful. We have a certain understanding with each other through that connection that has been really nice. And while I've directed Diva Night and things like that in the past, this is the first play I've actually directed because it's the one I've been waiting for. It speaks to my heart and I'm so very familiar with it.”
“I'm very excited about our cast because Lisa Bader hasn't done a play at P&B for 10 years or so, and I was able to lure her back,” continues Ann. “Stevie Meadows plays the character of Popeye, which is the role I would have killed to play on stage, but that ship has sailed. It's a really quirky role and a pivotal one. And I can't say enough great things about Mandee Wunderle, because she is peculiar and non-linear and carries no pretense. She is always in the present. Plus we have Tabbatha Wright, a new actress, who is just hilarious. It's been fun to watch the seasoned actors react to her really fine natural instincts. She's funnier than she realizes and takes direction beautifully.”
When asked what the most challenging component is for her as a Director, Ann points to the process of 'letting go.' “I worried that I wouldn't have anything decent to add in terms of input or valuable ideas for the cast, but because I am so familiar and enamored with this play, I do have something to say about it. Honestly, I think the biggest challenge for me is to keep my control issues in check and let the actors soar. Indeed, as an actor, there are some roles here I would love to play, but it's a lot of fun to hang back and watch this cast go where they're going to go with it, instead of driving the bus too tightly.”
When asked to pin down what she feels truly distinguishes Miss Firecracker Contest from the gamut of plays populating contemporary American theatre, Ann points to its Southern Gothic nature. “I think it's sweet and it speaks and touches me emotionally,” she notes. “You need something that touches you personally to convey it to other people effectively, plus the writing is very good. The characters are beautifully odd and its fun to watch the way they develop. And its fun to watch the actors take it even further on the stage. Not to mention it's incredibly funny.”
When I point that many critics have cited Miss Firecracker has somewhat of a pivotal feminist play, Ann enthuses that she had not really looked at it that way. “But it's very true because it does explore a lot of different preconceptions on identity and the nature of pigeon-holing female identities. Through the course of the play we learn that we're not very different at all from one another. The first place winner of the beauty pageant has a life that suffers as much as the fifth place winner, so it really isn't about outward as opposed to the importance of inward beauty.”
Indeed, even the male characters in this work are victims of distorted perceptions upon the nature of beauty. For example, Delmount also shares an obsession with beauty, and gets himself into a lot of trouble when exotic beauties catch his eye. This obsession results in disturbingly gruesome dreams about deformed body parts, emphasizing his madness and excessively romantic mind. Again, through this motif, Henley demonstrates that while beauty is considered important in society, using it to gain advantage or admiring it excessively does not ultimately lead to happiness.
“I suppose in summation, I would like to mention the wonder of creating a piece of art with people in such a supportive and happy environment,” concludes Ann. “It's a wonderful synergy, pulling these people together, some that I didn't know beforehand. It's such a fortuitous conglomeration of people that it makes coming five nights a week to rehearsal a lot of fun. This is the 'community' part of community theatre that makes it so important. These people aren't doing this for a living, although some have studied and are talented enough to do it for a living; but they pay the bills in other ways and give up their nights to do this. It's been very pleasurable, fun, and a memorable experience.”