Spring arrives and our collective fancy turns to thoughts of blooming gardens, outdoor parties, visiting with old friends on the porch, young love, and weddings. For a taste of spring, join four old friends looking to fill the emptiness of their lives with a spring ‘project’. WEDDING BELLES is on stage now at Old Academy Players in Philadelphia, during their 90th season. Boasting this as their 482nd full-length production, Old Academy Players must be doing something right to have such a distinguished background. Judging by this production, they most certainly are.
Entering the always charming building on Indian Queen Lane, one finds a set inspired by the Deep South and hearkening to a time gone by. A white clapboard house, a back porch complete with balustrade and clutter, porch furnishings, and an oddly unimpressive garden, shriveled and dry, that clearly once bloomed in glory. The appearance of the garden throughout helps to develop the show’s theme: transforming before our eyes from something empty, shriveled, and dry, into something full of life, beauty and hope. The production crew found a way to completely fill the small space of the stage with more than one would think in possible, while still allowing space for plenty of activity. Curtains in the home’s open windows even allow the audience to surmise which room is the kitchen and which is the living room.
Three friends, Bobrita (Ginny Kaufmann), Violet (Patricia Pelletreau), and Glendine (Michele Loor Nicolay), enter the yard of Laura Lee, and immediately begin to bring the surroundings to life. The absence of Laura Lee is a mystery. As they are visiting for a garden club planning meeting, most certainly moving toward a major event for the town, the ladies are stumped and worried about their friend. Soon enough Laura Lee (Susan Lonker) walks easily through her door to reveal that she has brought back a surprise. Feeling a bit more timid in her arrival is that very surprise, Ima Jean (Kimberly Shrack), an orphaned waif who has been brought back to the house from the local bus station. Laura Lee intends to help Ima Jean while she waits for her soon-to-be deployed soldier fiancé. The two want to marry in a courtroom before he is shipped out. The four friends hastily make the decision to give Ima Jean and her fiancé Jesse a wedding they will never forget.
This decision allows for the four women to come together for a new project, something which none are short on, as they are planning for garden club, making cheerleading uniforms, collect for the war effort, and more. Quickly, it becomes clear that they have been together with each other and for each other for what has undoubtedly been a lifetime. Through witty banter it is revealed that they have indeed been friends for the better part of 40 years, since their years together in high school, in what is clearly a very small Texas town. The plot unfolds as the women make the most of their wedding project, diving in with unabashed enthusiasm. When things get a little tense, past issues are revealed and there is a growth and new life in the garden and the lives of all five of the women.
The humor and tension of lifelong friendships are delicately portrayed by Kaufmann, Lonker, Nicolay, and Pelletreau. They use the space and dig into the script, allowing us a peek into what feels like a slice of life that has been repeated over and over again. These actresses are adept at keeping the action going, and making good choices for their characters, physically and emotionally. They use the dialogue, set, extensive props and one another with great skill. Making their relationships believable, these four actresses bring to life humor and tension all at once. Each of these very likable actresses brings her own special specific character choices to the table. The variety of personalities created among the women is both entertaining and endearing.
When the youthful character appears, Shrack brings energy to the stage in contrast to that of the older ladies. Shrack plays naiveté, purity, unworldliness, and just a little bit of dumb, with finesse. Through several monologues she takes her time to reveal her story and character while taking the audience on a touching journey. She is a fine young actress who will most certainly be seen again on stages around Philadelphia. As Ima Jean, Shrack rounds out the group of pleasant personalities who bring easy laughs and tenderness to the audience.
Helga Krauss utilizes the small space to the maximum, allowing her actresses to appear relaxed, in control, while filling their speaking and nonspeaking time with an unending set of tasks. There is never a time when the women are not busy with something. This type of reality in direction is important to production value. When not speaking, the women are still always actively engaged in their environment, while still attentive or reactive to the speaker. This takes a special kind of direction and a singular kind of energy and focus from the performers. The costuming, hair, and wigs are the only weakness in the production, just a bit off for the time period and with one character a bit of a distraction, which is unfortunate for the actress and production.
Busybodies, weddings, love, marriage, friendship, tension and mostly the humor that keeps life going are explored with humanity and truth. With WEDDING BELLES, the audience is treated to a delightful evening of theater, a bit of tension, a large dose of humor and a look back at the bittersweet time of 1940’s small town America.
by Alan Bailey and Ronnie Claire Edwards
Directed by Helga Krauss
Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM March 1,2, 8, 9, 15, 16, 2013
Sundays at 2:00 PM March 10, 17, 2013
Old Academy Players
3540-44 Indian Queen Lane
Philadelphia, PA 19129