Regional stereotyping is a hallmark of crude humor the world over. Berliners bust on Bavarians; Venetians needle Neapolitans. Almost any perceived difference is fair game: accent, food, fashion and especially brainpower. In the United States, the South’s roguish past makes it an especially juicy target for jokes.
Of course, troubled history has forged literary genius. Southern writers such as Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and Langston Hughes created tales and characters that drew on their roots without disparaging them. In The Miss Firecracker Contest (1984), playwright Beth Henley does just the opposite. The Mississippi native stuffs condescending clichés into her script like a sausage maker gone mad. How many “po’ white trash” elements can she ram into her characters’ Southern Gothic backstories? Far too many is the unfortunate answer.
Sparkling performances went a long way toward saving the University of Vermont Theatre Department’s production from Miss Firecracker’s fizzling script. Director Peter Jack Tkatch got high-voltage energy and charm from his student actors. But the joy of watching talented kids perform their hearts out couldn’t completely offset the difficulty of digesting Henley’s dyspeptic view of Southern culture.
Henley set Miss Firecracker in her mother’s hometown of Brookhaven, Mississippi, where a half-dozen oddball characters engage in an all-you-can-eat banquet of dysfunction. In endless speechifying, they recount twisted childhoods and the bizarre ways their parents died. Other baroque horrors prominent in their reflections include deformed pets, disfiguring illnesses and animal cruelty, as well as midgets, maiming and mental instability. These anecdotes are supposed to amuse. This is a comedy.
The playwright seems to think that bundling grotesque memories with behavioral quirks creates unique characters. But for these quirks, she relies on her pantry of Southern stereotype staples. Most characters display high tempers and low IQs, as well as a casual fondness for alcohol and racism. Larry the Cable Guy is writing more sophisticated stuff these days.
The slender plot revolves around Carnelle Scott’s quest to win the Miss Firecracker beauty pageant, held every year with the Fourth of July festivities. Winning the title would allow the ugly duckling to redeem her racy past as Miss Hot Tamale, an informal title acquired by sleeping “with every worthless soul in Brookhaven.” She wants to leave town “in a crimson blaze of glory”; at 24, Carnelle has one last chance.
Her cousin Delmount has returned from a brief mental-institution sojourn, following a foiled duel, to sell the family home where Carnelle was also raised. He plans to divide the house spoils with her so they can both move on and start new lives. But Delmount won’t share the proceeds with his pampered sister Elain, a former pageant-winning belle who keeps splitting and reconciling with her wealthy husband.
As Carnelle earnestly rehearses her tap dance to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” seamstress Popeye arrives to make her costume, and unwittingly stirs the family pot. The awkward wallflower befriends both the outgoing Carnelle and the haughty Elain, and instantly falls in love with the cantankerous Delmount.
On the day of the contest, catastrophes mount as Carnelle’s friends and family try to support her from backstage. Joining Carnelle’s entourage is tubercular carney Mac Sam, an endearing member of her wide circle of exes. Meanwhile, Delmount desperately tries to avoid running into pageant coordinator Tessy, a frumpy conquest who still carries a torch for him. Chaos — and some very out-of-place philosophizing — ensues. In the final scene, fireworks come from the lighting, not the writing, and the plot peters out like a dollar-store sparkler.
Throughout the play, the women retain their pluck and the men think with their genitals. Despite Henley’s unoriginal and offensive stereotypes, the engaging and talented UVM actors made the individual roles entertaining to watch. Aside from the somewhat inconsistent Southern accents, the actors seasoned their parts heartily. Carefully crafted gestures and mannerisms created a delightfully over-the-top comedic flavor. Credit director Tkatch for helping his cast develop their roles well.
For example, each character had a distinctive walk. Carnelle (Jess Hodge) jogged daintily, taking short, perky steps on the balls of her feet, while Tessy (Heather Baker) stomped heavily, firmly planting her heels in long, mannish strides. Posture also telegraphed personality traits. Both Popeye (Alyssa Prendergast) and Delmount (Bretton John Reis) hunched their shoulders — the young seamstress is shy, while her beloved is terminally indecisive. Elain (Catherine Durickas) carried herself regally, befitting an aging beauty queen. Carney Mac Sam (Adam Yeager Gould) conveyed his suavity with a loping gait and proud gaze, overriding his bedraggled exterior.
Both Hodge and Prendergast showed professional-grade chops and charisma. As Carnelle, Hodge pranced and prated with eager-to-please enthusiasm. Just like her flaming, red-dyed hair, Carnelle’s ultra-high energy level overcompensates for her inner lack of confidence and desperate fear of never overcoming her tarnished past. Hodge convincingly showed her character’s vulnerability, too, and that was doubly challenging, given that she was physically miscast. Carnelle struggles with weight — a key plot point in Act II — as well as her self-image. The lithe, attractive Hodge would have had to pull a full Renée-Zellweger-does-Bridget-Jones (gaining 30 pounds-plus) even to begin looking lumpy in Carnelle’s leotard.
Meanwhile, Popeye expresses her passions phlegmatically. She is the true ugly duckling of the play, and Prendergast portrayed the frumpy, bug-eyed girl with a galumphing gooniness that was both funny and endearing. She, too, had to work hard against physical type. Prendergast jutted her jaw at weird angles and adopted poor posture to convey Popeye’s cockeyed appearance. Inexplicably, the director made no attempt to cover her long, shiny, blond tresses.
All four other actors turned in strong performances. As Del-mount, Reis seemed to vibrate like an overamped electric wire. His skinny, jumpy physicality showed how Delmount’s restlessness and unfocused anger keep him from accomplishing anything. Despite Mac Sam’s hideous appearance and astonishing range of communicable diseases, Gould made his sleazy character utterly alluring. He directed seductive glances at Carnelle and Elain, and moved with laid-back, slightly leonine body language. Baker delivered a daft Tessy with blustery confidence and saucer eyes. Durickas conjured Elain’s antebellum hauteur well — alcohol-fortified and layered over modern insecurities — though she occasionally spoke too softly and stepped on audience laughter and other actors’ lines.
Scenic designer Jeff Modere-ger’s sets were much simpler than they have been for recent UVM productions. Visually, Miss Fire-cracker’s world was rather dull. Why not embellish Act I’s dowdy Victorian living room a little more, considering the script calls for “the endless clutter of nicknacks [sic]”? Act II’s backstage carnival set was bare bones. A wood floor delineated Carnelle’s dressing room; the rest consisted of scattered hay bales and a small, elevated platform with patriotic bunting.
With the exception of the final fireworks effects, director Tkatch also failed to draw on lighting designer John B. Forbes’ talents to enliven the production’s visual side. Costume designer Allison Ziegler, however, clothed the characters with color and flair. For example, Carnelle’s purple leotard and turquoise tights clashed mightily with her glowing red hair, reflecting her tangled emotions. Popeye’s taupe jumper with mismatched patchwork pockets also mirrored her character — creative and off-center.
But maybe fancier sets and lighting would have been mere lipstick on a pig. Why choose to stage such an oinker in the first place? Much of the audience seemed to be experiencing an uncomfortable dichotomy: They loved the students’ performances, as I did, and wanted to show their appreciation, but could only chuckle awkwardly at the weird material. I grimaced and wondered why a woman from the South would write such dreck — and how she apparently built a successful career on it.
I’d love to end with a fittingly trite, Dixie-themed quip about Henley, but she used ’em all up! So I’ll tweak a line from a more eloquent belle, Scarlett O’Hara: As God is my witness, I’ll never go to another Beth Henley play again.
The Miss Firecracker Contest, directed by Peter Jack katch, produced by the University of Vermont Department of Theatre. Royall Tyler Theatre, Burlington, Thursday-Saturday, November 8-10, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 11, at 2 p.m. $14/$17.