The Miss Firecracker Contest by Beth Henley opened this weekend at the Laurel Mill Playhouse, and is directed by Patrick Pase and produced by Julie Rogers. Maureen Rogers is the Executive Producer.
Henley is best known for her plays about the South, like Crimes of the Heart. This play continues in that genre. Although it was written about 30 years ago, the characters, like those in a Tennessee Williams play, remain relevant.
Carnelle Scott is the town’s wild girl. She was dumped at her late aunt’s house as a young girl where she grew up with her older cousins. Elain Rutledge, the oldest cousin, and a former Miss Firecracker, arrives running away from a suffocating marriage. The other cousin, Delmount Williams, is just out of a mental hospital where he was sent for an assault. Now Carnelle wants to be Miss Firecracker before she is too old to try. She has hired a poor, sweet, uneducated girl, Popeye Jackson, but a good seamstress, to help her with her costume. She also brings the humor to the play. Popeye, for instance, makes clothing for bull frogs. Their complex relationships are revealed in Act I.
Act II is the day of the contest, July 4th. Into this mix of characters is Carnelle’s old, but very unhealthy beau, Mac Sam, and the contest organizer, Tessy Mahoney. These characters help us understand the multi-layered personalities of the original four, especially Carnelle and Popeye.
Who is the slut, Carnelle who sleeps with many men or Elain who sleeps with her husband for his money? Who is really the crazy person, Delmount who can’t control his tempe,r or Tessy who wants a relationship with him? At the end, we ask ourselves, “Is being the prettiest girl and the most socially acceptable woman the key to happiness, or is it the unpolished, simple Popeye who will find true love and joy?”
Holly Trout plays Carnelle bringing out the sadness of her life, but still showing that she has the strength to deal with her adversities and look for a better life. She acts the whole play with an outrageous red wig with the surety of an experienced actress. As she badly tap dances across the stage, we believe that she thinks she can win the contest.
Julie Rogers energetically plays the poor girl, Popeye, who starts to emerge as a real woman by the end of the show. Sophia Hirrel is effective as the unhappy but wealthy Elain. Her realization that she is not ready to give up her comfortable life for one of uncertainty is reflective of many of the woman then and now.
Michael Angeloni plays Delmount who goes from mania to calmness. He has his best scenes when interfacing with Popeye.
Spencer Kate Nelson deftly portrays Tessy and brings that overly-sweet southern charm to the role that makes you feel like you ate too much cotton candy.
Patrick Pase, not only directs, but nobly plays Mac Sam who finds humor even in his own illnesses.
Pase’s direction is crisp and moves the action along. He also designed the set, lighting, and sound design for this production. The opening set, the late aunt’s home, recreates an old house loaded with trinkets, and he does a fine job recreating the fairground the day of the contest. The costumes designed by Julie Rogers, especially the dance outfits, are beautifully designed and colorful.
Put a bang in your July and come to Laurel to watch The Miss Firecracker Contest! It sparkles!
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.