My affection for Texas Repertory Theatre is, I think, well established in my many reviews of their past productions. In fact, I was over-the-top with enthusiasm for the last show I reviewed there, “Steel Magnolias.” Both cast and director handled the comedy and drama of that piece superbly. In fact, when I later obtained a DVD copy for my first viewing of the film version (with its many Hollywood stars), I sincerely felt Texas Rep had done it much better on the stage. Now we come to this month’s offering, “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” authored by 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner, Beth Henley (“Crimes of the Heart”). And who am I to argue with a Pulitzer Prize winner? Well let me try.
Allow me to begin by affirming that the Opening Night audience for this Texas Rep production (directed by Steven Fenley) got plenty of laughs, and seemed to have a generally better time than I did. This may boil down to a matter of individual taste. The farcical play is rife with nutty characters and silly gag lines, but for this critic it just seemed entirely too ridiculous. I say that while myself being a great fan of zany comedy, from the likes of Laurel & Hardy, to “I Love Lucy,” and beyond. For me, the problem in “Firecracker” was that not one of the crazy characters came across as believable. Consider first, the central character of Carnelle (Kay Allmand). She lives in the house where she grew up in the care of her late aunt, Ronelle, along with her cousins, Delmount and Elain. As the play begins, we find Carnelle working on the hilariously awful physical routine (part dance, part calisthenics) with which she hopes to win the Miss Firecracker Contest in her small Mississippi town of Brookhaven, and thus, hopefully, to at last gain respect in the community. And film buff fans of “Gone With the Wind” will enjoy Carnelle’s oath declaring, “I’ll never be hungry again! With God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”
To create a winning costume for her performance, Carnelle enlists the aid of seamstress, Popeye (Jen Lucy). Miss Lucy’s characterization featured a kind of whiny little girl voice, and lots of eye rolling, but it didn’t really work for me. Then, when she arrives unexpectedly, we meet cousin Elain (Maggie Flecknoe), who is unhappily married, and has two sons she enjoys spending time away from. Add to the mix the arrival of crazy cousin Delmount (Joshua Estrada), who by the way, has just gotten out of the asylum, and plans to sell Aunt Ronelle’s house and split the proceeds with Carnelle so she can escape Brookhaven. Angry sparks fly between Delmount and sister Elain. As he goes berserk, Elaine rages, “You bring out the worst in me! You always have!” Kooky humor prevails when Delmount has a violent tantrum because someone ate the last brownie. But at least he’s trying to be productive. You see he’s gotten himself, “…a job scraping up dead dogs from the road.” Crazy enough for you?
In Act II we move to the fair grounds where the contest will be held. One minor character, the balloon man, Mac Sam (Jeff Lane), was rewarded with loud laughter just for coming out on stage. It seemed Mr. Lane had a generous contingent of good-humored pals in the Opening Night audience. There were more laughs when Tessy (Susan Draper) arrived to supervise the contest competition. With wiry body language and protruding teeth just perfect for Halloween, officious Tessy shouts the line-up orders to the contestants. Miss Draper was pretty funny, but not always audible.
While the characters seemed more like cartoons, the slapstick comedy was a hit with much of the audience. Richard Chamblin’s set designs for house and fairgrounds were fine, Sonia Lerner provided nice costume designs, (highlighted by Carnelle’s competition outfit), and David Gipson’s lighting designs even included a lovely crescent moon. As for further clues to the plot, I hesitate to say more lest I take the fun out of the Miss Firecracker competition. If you’re looking to escape your daily cares with some real nonsense, this may be just the ticket for you. To quote Delmount, “It’s a stupid, idiotic contest. You’ll do fine.”
The Miss Firecracker Contest continues through May 24th with performances Thursday at 7pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Texas Repertory Theatre is located just 1/8 mile north of FM 1960, in the Northwoods Lighting shopping center at 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., Houston Texas. For tickets and information call 281-583-7573, or visit the website at www.texreptheatre.org.