Beth Henley stocks her plays with characters that are distinctive and outlandish, right down to their names. The Miss Firecracker Contest, her wily and witty comedy now being revived at South Camden Theatre Company, is no exception. (When was the last time you heard of a woman named Popeye?) But beneath the unusual names and Southern-style trappings, there’s an inspirational story about a young woman determined to win a beauty contest against difficult odds.
The Miss Firecracker Contest tells the story of Carnelle Scott, a 24-year-old woman saddled with a bad reputation – a deserved one, actually – for being wild, rude, and sexually voracious. Now she’s decided to reform her life and use the money she’s due from an inheritance to move out of her small Mississippi town. But first, she wants to compete in the town’s annual Fourth of July beauty contest. Despite being untalented and unglamorous, she’s convinced she can claim the prize (“I can’t think of five girls in town that are prettier than me,” she says with her typical conceit). And once she has the crown and the money, she can prove her worth and “leave this town in a crimson blaze of glory.”
Looking on with disdain are her snobby cousin Elain, a long-ago former Miss Firecracker (“It is such a burden trying to live up to a beautiful face,” she says wearily) who is trying to escape from a long, loveless marriage, and Elain’s rough-hewn brother Delmount, just back from a forced stay at “the lunatic asylum.” They support Carnelle to her face, but laugh at her behind her back (“I’ve never seen anything so pathetic!”). Popeye is the timid, nearsighted seamstress helping to create Carnelle’s pageant costumes.
The Miss Firecracker Contest has a lot of fun playing off the conventions of Southern Gothic literature (typified by writers like Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers). Carnelle lives in a crumbling rococo house filled with antique furniture and lace doilies (“This place sure is scary,” says Popeye), while all of the characters have long and absurdly complicated backstories. (A hilarious tale about how Carnelle’s aunt lost a battle with a pituitary gland disorder is typical of the extremes Henley goes to in her storytelling.)
But sometimes the characters get too weird and inaccessible – like Carnelle’s ex-lover Mac Sam, a carny with a tubercular cough who claims not to mind that Carnelle gave him a venereal disease. And the play’s climax falls flat: it’s a long scene set at the pageant – but it all takes place backstage. As a result, whenever something big happens,we don’t get to witness it – instead, we’re told about it later. As a result, the scene drags, sapping the play of its dramatic thrust.
Still, director Scott R. Grumling makes the best of the play’s unconventional rhythms. And he’s helped by a cast that takes the character’s eccentricities and runs with them. As Carnelle, Rebecca Latimer comes off as too frantic during the early scenes, but in the end her sincerity helps to make Carnelle’s desperation appealing. Meanwhile, Donovan Lockett’s deeply droll take on the panicky Popeye gives the character a winning quirkiness.
Danny Donnelly adds a hint of danger to Delmount, the most sensible of the lot, while Heather Ferrel drips with comic condescension the arrogant Elain. (The two actors show off strong chemistry; their long-stewing sibling battles are among the show’s high points.)
Aaron Michael Roberge is quite effective as Mac Sam, giving him an insistent stare and posture that define the character as the outsider in the group. And Hilary Wilson plays the pageant’s stage manager with an engaging persistence and an explosive laugh.
Robert Bingaman’s richly detailed design for Carnelle’s old-fashioned living room perfectly sets the mood for a colorful Southern comedy, and Stephanie di Bona’s soft lighting adds to the antiquated atmosphere. Ashley Reiter’s costumes give the show a touch of the modern flavor it needs. (The music of the folk-rock band Delta Rae, played between scenes, helps too.)
The Miss Firecracker Contest has been given a sweet and affecting staging. No matter who wins The Miss Firecracker Contest, this cast comes off like winners.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
The Miss Firecracker Contest plays through Sunday, March 26, 2017, at South Camden Theatre Company, performing at The Waterfront South Theatre – 400 Jasper Street, in Camden, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.