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Monday, May 21, 2012

Dixie Swim Club Is Back by Popular Demand at Derby Dinner Playhouse


Pictured from left to right are Jill Kelly as Lexie and Tina Jo
Wallace as Vernadette in Dixie Swim Club. Photo courtesy of
Derby Dinner Playhouse.


The Dixie Swim Club

By Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten
Produced and Directed by Bekki Jo Jchneider

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

Jones Hope Wooten (as the three playwrights who created The Dixie Swim Club are collectively known) has rapidly become one of the most successful writing teams ever. Known for their Futrelle Family Texas Trilogy (Dearly Beloved, Christmas Belles and Southern Hospitality), along with The Hallelujah Girls and Til Beth Do Us Part, among others, they have recently hit the eighteen hundred productions mark, with over twelve thousand performances of their various plays. Their scripts are peopled with characters of the southern persuasion and feature a down-home charm and humor that keeps audiences coming back for more.

That is certainly true of The Dixie Swim Club, presented here for a second run at Derby Dinner Playhouse. It is the Playhouse’s most requested revival ever, and with good reason: it is a simply wonderful play that is funny and poignant without becoming cloying. While there is no shortage of laughs in the piece, it is arguably the most serious-minded of all of Jones Hope Wooten’s plays, one that will put a lump in your throat by the end.

It tells the story of five women who have been friends since their days on their college swim team. They meet for a long weekend every August at a secluded beach cottage in North Carolina to catch up, reminisce, gossip and swim. All five women are distinct personalities, each one lovable in her own way, and the play follows them over the course of four such weekends, over a span of some thirty-three years. The show puts you through its paces of laughs and heartbreak, in a manner reminiscent of both Steel Magnolias and Driving Miss Daisy, but manages to adhere to a style all its own.

Great performances all around bring the show to vivid life, and that is no small feat considering some of these characters could have become shrewish and overbearing if overplayed. Rita Thomas, for example, makes you love her acid-tongued and hard-drinking lawyer Dinah despite the character’s built-in brashness, and she gets some of the shows biggest laughs. Jill Kelly similarly keeps you rooting for her snobbish, privileged and entitled serial divorcee Lexie, enough that you feel her pain in a heartbreaking second act reveal (although of all the actresses, hers is the only Southern accent that feels a bit forced).

Tina Jo Wallace is hysterically funny as the much-put-upon Vernadette, appearing in every scene with a new injury that emphasizes the constant parade of bad luck that permeates her life. Michelle Johnson is sweet as the na├»ve and slightly air-headed Jeri, a former nun who has had herself artificially inseminated. And Janet Essenpreis is all business as Sheree, the group’s health-conscious and obsessively organized de-facto leader.

The changing ages of the ladies over the course of the show is done in a nicely muted way; no age makeup that I could see, just changes of wigs and period-correct costumes (supplied by Jill Higginbotham and Sharon Murray Harrah, respectively). The effect is a believable progression of time that doesn’t detract from the performances and works beautifully.

Ron Breedlove’s lighting design nicely illuminates John Witzke’s set, which does evoke a cottage by the ocean. I would like to have seen a bit more variation from scene to scene in the design, to help indicate the passage of time, but that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise solid production.

I am only familiar with a few of the Jones Hope Wooten plays, but I think this one has become my favorite so far. It’s not hard to see why it’s been revived by popular demand; I strongly recommend you see it before it’s over.

But if you miss it this time, something tells me it will be back in a year or so!

The Dixie Swim Club

Starring Janet Essenpreis, Jill Kelly, Rita Thomas, Michelle Johnson, and Tina Jo Wallace.

May 15 – July 1, 2012
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281
www.derbydinner.com

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