FIRST BAPTIST OF IVY GAP
by Ron Osborne
MainStage Irving-Las Colinas
Director - Dennis Yslas
Producers - Evelyn Hall, James West, and David Smith
Stage Manager - Tom Ortiz
Set Design and Master Carpenter - Jennye James
Lighting Design - Lisa Miller
Light Board Operator - Ian Garland
Costume Design - Karen Burks
Asst. Costumer - Elizabeth Warren
Sound Design - Rich Frohlich
Sound Board Operator - Tully Hall
Props - Louise Childs
Edith - Mary Tiner
Luby Moore - Dena Dunn
Mae Ellen - Jessica Kitchen-Wells
Olene Wiffer - Kris Walters
Sammy - Jessica Dahl-Colaw
Vera - Fritz Ketchum
Reviewed Performance 1/21/2011
Reviewed by Laura L. Watson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
ICT's production of First Baptist of Ivy Gap was a sweet play with many gentle pokes at life in the Bible belt that could have been a whole lot more.
Written by Ron Osborne, this play was about six women in the small, fictional town of Ivy Gap, Tennessee, who came together to roll bandages for the soldiers fighting World War II. As they opened up and shared their lives with one another, friendships were made and certain rivalries were established. The second act revealed that it is 25 years later, and the women were reunited for the church's 100th birthday.
ICT is a large proscenium theatre which was nicely transformed into the basement of the First Baptist Church of Ivy Gap where all but one short scene took place- the other being the front porch of Luby, which was nicely alluded to with a simple rocking chair and shift in lighting. Set designer Jennye James made a beautiful and functional set, though I question why it wasn't solid. There were breaks in the wall allowing the audience to see characters enter and exit. It had thin frames to suggest doors and windows and utilized only part of the stage's width and depth. A mismatch of tables lined the walls, stacked with supplies sent by the American Red Cross. When I saw it, I immediately knew where the play would take place, but something as simple as closing the curtains to meet the set's frame could have helped keep me in that story a little better. With sections of the wall detached from one another, it reminded me of my recent trip to Theatre Arlington to review Don't Dress for Dinner. While the set design there aided in that farce, an unrealistic set here did not aid the more realistic storyline.
The costumes by Karen Burks, with assistance from Elizabeth Warren helped to convey not only time period but each individual character. Topping each clothing choice off was a period appropriate shoe, handbag, (for some) gloves, and hair style that made me wish the 1940's would come back into style- or at least that I could shop where they did. Though the 70's were the wild fashion pinnacle for some, fashion was more subdued in Baptist churches, though the shift from 1944 to 1970 was clearly evident in this production. If the costumes were hanging on mannequins and I only had a copy of the script in my hand, I could have easily matched up both the 1940's AND the 1970's costume to the right character and this is most impressive. The subtle differences, such as outspoken Mae Ellen always being in pants to the slightly shorter skirts worn by star struck Olene, between the characters helped to display some of the brewing conflicts amongst them. Also, in the second act, it was easy to see that they were ultimately still the same women simply by what they wore to the church's reunion celebration even though they have gone through a lifetime of heartaches and successes. The one criticism of design was the aging process. Twenty-five years had passed from Act I to Act II, and the makeup did not reflect this on some of the actors. The aging process needed to be a little more pronounced.
Lighting designer Lisa Miller utilized lights with ease to show the passage of time from one scene to the next and to one brief scene on a porch. Sound design by Rich Frohlich was also subtle but ever present, from the organ Mae Ellen was always practicing "upstairs" to crickets chirping. In particular, the traditional Baptist hymns that played at scene changes were an extra nice touch, mainly because several of us found ourselves singing along. The music was ever much a part of the culture of this church as was the ladies' choices in shoes, hair, or pot luck dish. Lights and sound never overpowered the production but simply helped to tell the story.
Director Dennis Yslas had an excellent cast and good designers, but the show overall lacked passion and energy. In part, this is due to stagnant blocking. For the most part, the play was written for six women to be talking as they rolled bandages over the course of several months, and then talking as they prepare for the church's 100th anniversary. However, the blocking never added much subtext or allowed the actors to build their onstage energy or chemistry with one another. As an acting teacher of mine once said, "Talking heads belong on film because talking heads on stage is boring." There were brief moments of interest, such as Mae Ellen's and Olene's tongue and cheek dance numbers, but otherwise, the women stood or sat talking.
Another reason for the low energy and lack of interest was the text itself. It attempted to create a mystery where there was none. Those so-advertised secrets weren't very secret and so the big reveal(s) fell a little flat. The saving grace of this show, and the hook that probably caused ICT to add it to their season, was the little charming, playful jabs it took at Baptist life in the Bible belt. First Baptist of Ivy Gap may not have grabbed the audience with its drama, but we sure did chuckle at all the memories of our experiences (whatever they might have been) with sweet little Baptist church ladies.
Of all the plays I have seen in recent months, this cast had the most melodious voices ever assembled on one stage. They could have been reading the dictionary and I would have sat back, relaxed and been charmed by the tale they wove.
Anchoring the show, and their friendships, was Mary Tiner as Edith, the pastor's wife. Making brief yet memorable appearances as Vera, the `real power behind the pastor', was Fritz Ketchum. She delivered those Baptist absurdities with absolute certainty, though Ketchum didn't really get to flex her acting muscles in this role.
Dena Dunn was Luby, the more serious, nearly always grief stricken mother of a deployed soldier, who (because of before mentioned problems with staging and pacing) had a difficult time truthfully making it to those deep lows and angry outbursts.
Mae Ellen is the church's organist who had high hopes of one day getting out of Ivy Gap, and Jessica Kitchen-Wells did well to show us both that this was her strength and her greatest fear. Sammy, the girl from a neighboring town, was quiet and a little secretive, and Jessica Dahl-Colaw's soft voice portrayed this well. She also had a physical stance, hands clasped in front of her, shoulders raised, head slightly bowed, that suggested she was trying to protect herself from those around her.
Kris Walters as Olene, the one who thinks she was destined for stardom, had the most energy of the cast and truly displayed the greatest character arc in the play. Not only did she have the physical transformation that was aided by costumes from Act I to Act II, but her posture and voice also changed to suggest she had been through a lot in the last 25 years.
ICT'S First Baptist Ivy Gap was a good chuckle for a quietly charmed audience, but with more innovative directing and higher energy from the cast, I imagine it could have been a whole lot more. Regardless, I told my Pastor to go and enjoy it.
FIRST BAPTIST OF IVY GAP by Ron Osborne
at the Dupree Theater, Irving Arts Center
3333 N. MacArthur Blvd, Irving, Texas 75062
Runs through January 29th
Friday & Saturday January 28 & 29, 2011 at 8 pm.
Tixs can be purchased online at www.irvingtheatre.org or by calling (972) 252- 2787