THE DIXIE SWIM CLUBBy Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten
Richardson Theatre Centre
Director – Rachael Lindley
Stage Manager – Hal Heath
Production Assistant – Joan Leonard
Set Design – Andrew Dillon
Set Construction/Decorating – Hal Heath, Robin Coulonge, Joan Leonard, Rachael Lindley, Leigh Wyatt Moore, and Jennifer Stubbs
Light/Sound Design – Richard Stephens, Sr.
Props – Rachael Lindley, Cast, Crew
Costumes – Rachael Lindley, Cast, Crew
Artistic Director – Rachel Lindley
Producer – Lise Alexander
House Manager/Facebook – Leigh Wyatt Moore
Playbill/Flyers/Web/Enews – Becky Byrley
Sheree Hollinger – Robin Daffinee Coulonge
Lexie Richards – Heather Walker Shin
Dinah Grayson – Jennifer Stubbs
Vernadette Sims – Leigh Wyatt Moore
Jeri Neal McFeeley – Debbie Deverich
Reviewed Performance: 3/19/2016
Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Well, dear reader, it really is a shame that there are no decent people with whom I could conceivably have made a bet with about this, because I was RIGHT, on every count – including in my concern about what would be most artistically at risk in putting on a show like that. The Richardson Theatre Centre, a hole in an unassuming strip as well-decorated and rich with secrets as an independent Italian place, has incidentally done Steel Magnolias, which I didn’t catch, but I know the movie enough to know that Steel Magnolias lives and dies with its actors. There’s been a kind of narrative art, mostly movies, in the last 40 that really liked to lay a kind of warm-fuzzy tragedy on you, movies where people suffer cancer or families get torn apart and yet somehow everybody smiles tearfully. It comes from a cynical place, and it’s usually ham-handed, and when the writing isn’t good, well, you know. Corn and worse for ya.
And The Dixie Swim Club is corny, if sufferably at worst and not without inspiration. The play is not a national treasure – it comes from a plucky conglomerate called Jones-Hope-Wooten, who sling funny situationals for UILs and interested communities, as if Neil Simon had finally gone for it and opened up a firm and a factory just before selling the name and moving to the Caribbean. Director Rachael Lindley, who handily charmed the room with her introduction, is tackling an Agatha Christie next. She openly scanned the crowd for potential participants, and the plain-faced egalitarianism of her encouragement was fantastic. This is not a company that strives for heavy statements. They’ll put on whatever show.
The set with which you’re greeted in the RTC’s tastefully intimate space definitely doesn’t inspire doubt. It’s A+, from a beach backdrop in oils with faint lighting to perfect furniture and wonderful minutia, and an alluring turquoise infusion throughout. It’s complimented somehow too by the gray speckling on the space’s art worn floor. Then plainly clad Robin Daffinee Coulonge does her best dorky shimmy onstage, glamorously clad Heather Walker Shin comes in and sneaks a picture of her bum while she’s bending to dust, and quips and liquor flow as three more members tumble into the fold from exhausting lives for a cherished annual retreat. (They begin in their forties, though one actor could pass for another actor’s mother.) Art like this is valuable for the same reason the Club’s vacation is – as respite from the male, something we all could use at one point or another. But Dixie is not quite Love! Valour! Compassion!
As literature, Dixie Swim Club is a B- dramedy about how life surprises you, in the manner of movies you might catch, if I may, on a channel such as Lifetime. Its swimmers don’t encounter political tides, even though the action ostensibly begins in 1962 (cf. “Do You Love Me”, “Green Onions”) and proceeds over three decades. The message is more in the manner of the British Up series: that life just happens to you, and you conform to the roller coaster how you can. It may in this way be more valuable and relatable to the people who will see it. It has good lines and groaners that got equally big, honest laughs – not unlike the less perfect Golden Girls episodes, except with real people laughing – and it has a cute monologue about biscuits that elicited an “amen!” from the older gentleman in front of me, which I’ll disclose was his second of the night. Much like the RTC’s sound system, the show simply isn’t great by design. But beyond set and costumes, Ms. Lindley’s Dixie Swim Club makes for a worthwhile night out, because – just as it is with Golden and Steel – you are seeing it interpreted by a uniformly terrific ensemble.
I confess I felt Debbie Deverich had a tendency to overcook her beats as Jeri Neal, the last-introduced and most stylized figure in the quintet. But Ms. Deverich is an interesting case. She’s just returned to acting as of last fall after a 30-year absence, and her work here displays an unmistakable undimming of chop and instinct. I hope she seeks and wins roles that challenge her back to texture as well as intensity. You can see how well she works in much of the quieter comedy; trading glances with the group’s MVP, Lunatic Theatre cofounder Leigh Wyatt Moore. Moore does incredible, intricate work translating the show’s hackneyed gags into recognizable humanity. (Sometimes there’s an imbalance of work, as when her responsive laughs to others’ jokes go unaccompanied.) Even when the playwrights are trying their hardest to lay her Vernadette on as the clown – they do literally have her appear in a clown suit at once point, and Moore gets to adapt to a new injury per scene – every choice comes with wit and grace.
Jennifer Stubbs has the most elusive character to work with, but the more you settle in, the more you appreciate her believably even temperament. She could turn her Dinah up a bit as the run progresses. Heather Walker Shin, whose upturned skeptic scrunch makes for great visual counterpoint with Moore’s ‘hangdog bewilderment’ faces, keeps up with Moore, and braves harder emotional waters where her partners are more tentative. The authors rely on Lexie for most of the major sincerity pushes, but when they don’t they crank out Blanche Devereux recyclables about plastic surgery and big appetite. It takes a deft hand to validate that, and Shin has at least two. Her “Dixie” accent is also the only one that never comes undone. The actor who most strenuously arrives at the dialect is Robin Daffinee Coulonge, who, while nailing the dowdy perfectionist archetype she’s given, seems inclined to draw her Sheree into the background. Nevertheless, when Coulonge cries she provides the play’s tragic beats a rawer impact. The play’s poignant ending is her, facing the crowd, eyes wet, looking wistfully into history’s horizon as her friends run out into the other one. It’s more moving in person than it ever could be in a sappy movie.
Richardson Theatre Centre, 518 W. Arapaho Rd., Ste. 113, Richardson TX 75080
Runs March 18th through April 3rd, Thursday at 7:30 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM, and Sunday at 2:00 PM. Call 972-699-1130 or visit richardsontheatrecentre.net.