The dramatic potential of neurotic Dixieland belles has been known since Tennessee Williams’ day, but Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias may have been the first play to fully recognize the comic value in the tragic lives of crazy Southern women.
Nathan Sanders’ The Sugar Bean Sisters is in this genre. Faye (Vicki Pugmire, right) and Willie Mae Nettles (Jennifer Van Dyke, left) are a pair of spinsters living in rural Florida and have the requisite quirks and dark secrets and frustrated yearnings. An unexpected visit by Videllia Sparks (Sallie Cooper) unlocks past mysteries, uncovers sinister plans, etc. Willie Mae’s yen for a handsome but married LDS bishop (Rich Malatesta) is bound to go unrequited.
The sisters are Mormon—but Mormon in the way characters written by non-Mormons are often written—that is, Sanders treats Mormonism as a kind of quirk, such as diabetes or an aptitude for automotive repair. In most places, this kind of shallow “Mormonism” can be played strictly for laughs, but here in Utah, it presents a problem.
The only way it can succeed is with thoughtful direction—which is what makes this production so gratifying. With one deft choice of blocking and a particular costume design, director Jim Martin reveals how Sanders could have made Faye and Willie Mae’s religion not only relevant, but vital.
This kind of meta-commentary, in which a production critiques its own source material, might be impossible in a large production.
The ensemble is strong—Mary Lee Anderton’s performance as the Reptile Woman is spine-tingling, and Cooper chews the scenery as the outlandish Videllia. Solid performances and perceptive direction make this production enjoyable on so many levels, it’s enough to restore anyone’s faith in the value of small, local theater companies.
Wasatch Theatre Company: The Sugar Bean Sisters @ Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. Broadway, 801-297-4215, April 30-May 16. WasatchTheatre.com