MAMA WON'T FLYBy Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten
Director by Natalie Gaupp
Stage Manager – Ashley Moseley
Fight Choreographer – Joe Chapa
Scenic Designer – Tony Curtis
Lighting Designer – Jesse Scott
Sound Designer – Matt McGregor
Scenic Artist – Jon R. Kruse
Set Dresser – Julia Broussard
Vegas Video Sequence Editor – Allison Willoughby
Properties Designer – Cathy Pritchett
Costume Designer – Elly Hunt
Norleen Sprunt – Jacque Campbell Disher
Savannah Honeycutt – Allison Willoughby
Hayley Quinn – Caitlin Galloway
Tanya/Fanny/Kiki – Katie Weekley
Rema Jean/Edweena/Sybil – Elizabeth Webb
Ardale/Essie/Juliette/Teeta – Camille Long
Denton/Uncle Ferd/Ronald – Matt Adams
Officer.Dugger/Mickey/Red/Spud – Jon Garrard
Kelvin/Chicken/Mitch – Alejandro (Alex) De Luna
Great-Aunt Pawnee – Bessie Mae Mucho
Reviewed Performance: 8/7/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Theatre Arlington opened Mama Won’t Fly and it was characteristically delightful in its story line, the character situations were exaggerated but believable, and those were some wild characters.
The story of Mama Won’t Fly is simple. Young Haley is marrying into the Sprunt family and Savannah has to get Mama Norleen to California. But Mama Won’t Fly, so Savannah has to drive with her from Alabama, which is challenging enough for any mother and daughter, but when future-bride Haley arrives to bond with the family, she joins the monumental journey and sparks fly.
Natalie Gaupp directed Mama Won’t Fly. The resident playwright and lecturer at UTA Theater Department is highly capable of making this production fly. She cast a group of actors who created quirky characters and gave vision to designers who put this show into a great setting.
The setting for this cross-country journey was a bare stage with movable furniture pieces and items that created many scenic locales. Designed by Tony Curtis, it allowed for an easy shift to places on the road from Alabama through Texas to Las Vegas and on to Santa Monica with simple changes and scene projections on a large back wall screen. Allison Willoughby got credit for a video sequence of Las Vegas, complete with Elvis Presley and the Strip. Jon R. Kruse got credit for scenic art and Julia Broussard dressed the set with items such as hotel room furnishings, a Las Vegas wedding gazebo, and a cowboy-Irish bar. I’m not sure who created the slide show, but they were great.
Lighting was pretty non-descript, which is a compliment to Jesse Scott. It did not become the story, but it did make actors easy to see in full stage light, in private moments, and during frequent scene changes, while photo slides or videos played.
Matt McGregor created a soundtrack that included various noise effects heard along the trip, some off-stage noises, and appropriate action effects. It was distracting when sound came from speakers in the grid, while the actions that caused the noises were down on the stage floor. This disconnect between sound and action created moments of disbelief each time, though not enough to linger. With that exception, all sound effects were realistic for the action and worked well for the story. I liked the Big Band themed soundtrack for pre-show, intermission and scene changes. We got to hear the likes of Harry James, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller, among others. My 20-something guest had no idea who they were, but most of that audience must have loved the trip down memory lane. And it set a consistent musical theme without becoming the thing people remembered most.
Cathy Pritchett provided many properties for Mama Won’t Fly. Every character had several that helped define that character and gave actors plenty of business action. Most was funny. There were too many to list, but the little pistols several actors used were a bit cheesy and plastic, but in this bombastic comedy, they contributed to the farcical nature of the story. There were also bras and food and clothing accessories that became props, it was fun to watch them being used.
Costumes, designed by Elly Hunt, ran the gamut from casual pants and tops for the travelling women to outlandish costumes for the Sprunt’s crazy Texas family. I especially liked Savannah’s pink square-dance dress, Mama’s habit, and Haley’s red Annie costume. This show had ten actors, but six played twenty characters, each completely different from each other. And each had outlandish costumes that identified them as a different character on the same actor. I suspect the costumes also empowered actors to discover a persona of their characters. Costumes are magical that way.
Mama Won’t Fly is about Mama and her daughter, Savannah. Rather, it’s about all of us who have struggled with parents or children, trying to stay close without losing our independence. It’s about misunderstandings that develop in families and how they might go be repaired. Here’s a hint. Taking a cross-country drive in an old Buick with no AC might not be the best way to do it.
Mama Norleen Sprunt was played by Jacque Campbell Disher with all the clichéd attitude and demands we come to expect from older mothers. Snide comments couched in honey-filled jokes, innocuous questions intended to elicit personal answers, high expectations about how daughters should act, and the under-the-breath reactions when they don’t, Disher could not have done better to display a model of our mothers. Her disheveled hair and relaxed, lazy posture, perhaps influenced by a bit of rheumatism, showed a physical image of Mama. Her strong Alabama accent, influenced by a strong West Texas connection, was consistent throughout and sounded for all the world like most of the Southern characters in the Hope, Jones, Wooten library. Think of Carol Burnett’s “Went With The Wind” sketch or her classic sketches as Eunice in “Mama’s Family.” Mama has some real surprises in her and Disher let these simmer before springing them on us when we least expected it. I loved watching Mama suddenly switch when one tactic to get her daughter to do something failed and instantly launch into another. Disher made these turns so spontaneous we never relaxed into guessing what she’d do next. And that made the changes funnier.
Allison Willoughby played Savannah Honeycutt, a successful business woman who decides to help her brother by getting her mother to California if it kills her. It might. Willoughby made Savannah about as normal as possible in a family like this, an older daughter married and divorced and living her own life. She seems to have fought with Mama about ‘meddling’ before. She too was a universal character we could relate to, a daughter who hates mom setting her up with available bachelors. Willoughby showed the exasperation Savannah would feel and a sense that this was a long running feud. Her eye-rolls and under-the-breath utterances betrayed her feelings clearly. Savannah walks a line between needing Mama and wanting to strangle her. Willoughby walked this same line with off-center, unbalanced delivery of lines intended to control Mama without stressing her. But there’s a turn as Savannah learns things about Mama and Willoughby shows a clear transformation through her softening of voice and relaxing posture.
This trip would’ve been difficult with only Mama and Savannah, but add the new, young, bride-to-be, along with her strong relationship to personal disaster, and you have the makings of an epic ride across America. Haley Quinn is that bride and Caitlin Galloway played Haley. Her youth made the transition into Haley easier, but Galloway brought a new physicality to this role that made Haley dangerous and charming at the same time. With a subtext to make a good impression on Mama and a back-story about Haley’s past unluckiness, we were treated to a whole show full of pratfalls, reactive facial expressions, and body postures that would make most of us hurt. Haley gets into situations along the trip that create challenges for everyone. Galloway believed in Haley’s flaws so much she was able to convey it to us and we came to love Haley in spite of them. It even worked when the mayhem was implied or off-stage. Her stage on-stage physicality made it believable when we heard about her off-stage accidents. There were many moments that could describe her acting, but watching her marvel at the Bra Museum with innocence and awe was precious. So much of the humor in this show came from watching Galloway doing physical comedy that I have to especially applaud Director Gaupp for casting her in this role and Galloway for really going for it.
There were numerous other characters along this epic journey and most were played by six actors. These characters are about as outrageous as you can get. Some of the names provide a clue: Uncle Ferd, Red, Spud, Chicken, and Great-Aunt Pawnee.
Essie is the curator of the Bra Museum and only too willing to model the bras for the visitors. Camille Long played Essie as a very old lady who could barely walk, wearing a gray bun and thick glasses, but who really wok up once she discovers Mama has a past relationship with the bra factory. Long also played Aunt Ardale, the bible-spouting sister of Mama out in Nickelbone, Texas where the Sprunt family lives. In this character Long made Ardale a straight-laced but well-dressed middle-aged woman who was not only personable but ready to ask for support her ministry at the drop of a hat, though most everyone just ignored her. Other characters by Long included Juliette, an irate ex-costumer of the Nickelbone Community Theater who now is the town lush, and Teeta, a Vegas showgirl who runs the wedding chapel. Both required Long to create dramatically different characters and it was easy to think someone totally different played each of those parts.
Katie Weekley created her own bevy of crazy characters, including Tanya, the buxom realtor giving Savannah fits for befriending Mama. She became Fanny who demonstrated for temperance outside the bar in Nickelbone. And Kiki, the Vegas gold-digger ready to marry a hapless guy from the casino who couldn’t see through her charade, because he was watching her see-through pants and low-cut blouse. This was my favorite of Weekley’s characters as she was able to really sex it up and play out the quintessential bimbo role.
Elizabeth Webb created three characters. Aunt Rema Jean, the matron of the Sprunt family, who laid out her big spread of food to feed the visitors from back East. Webb’s Edwina then joined Fanny to preach and save sinners outside the bar, although neither seemed too committed to their cause. And finally Sybil showed up at the wedding chapel in the nick of time to save her husband from that hussy, Kiki. Webb’s outrage as Sybil over the brazen Kiki escalated the wedding scene into a free-for-all.
It’s probably a good time to mention the cameo of Great Aunt Pawnee in the Sprunt family celebration. Played by the effervescent Bessie Mae Mucho in a wheelchair with her back to the audience, it was clear Aunt Pawnee may have had some mental health issues. Her two minutes on stage belied the fact that her antics in the wheelchair showed just where the craziness of that family originated. Her accident at the hands of Haley sent the trio of travelers into a new path, so Aunt Pawnee’s cameo was an important plot point.
Matt Adams played Denton Crocker, a man who figures big in Mama Norleen’s life, ‘especially since he fixed her Buick for the road trip. In Texas, Adams became Uncle Ferd, in his wild red, white and blue cowboy shirt, chasing and dancing a little too close with the ladies. And as Ronald, Adams became the soon-to-be ex-husband who hooks up with Kiki because of free shrimp cocktail and see-through pants. He played the big, dumb older man role with as if he might have experienced some of that in his own life, hopefully in others.
Alejandro (Alex) De Luna first appears in the Sprunt family reunion as Cousin Chicken. As the name suggests, he has his own mental challenges, especially as he runs around with a jar of mayonnaise, or something or someone. He dresses it up and introduces it to people. As Mitch, he turned into the new owner of the Nickelbone bar, yes the same one that someone was demonstrating against and the one with a resident lush. It seems he’s struggling with his brother over the type of bar it should be. He favors Cowboy; his brother has other ideas. We finally see De Luna as Kelvin, the high-falutin concierge of the California hotel who challenges Mama because of their trashiness. He has a lot to learn.
Finally, Jon Garrard, tallest man on the set, played four characters. Officer Dugger encounters the traveling circus when he stops Mama in a stolen car. Then Garrard shows us Mickey, Mitch’s brother, you know, the cowboy owner? Well, Mickey feels more Irish than cowboy, with a thick Irish brogue. It’s clear there’s a territory fight going on here. I think my favorite of Garrard’s characters was Red, the trucker who picks up three hitch-hiking girls on a dessert road. Garrard turned that trucker into one of the funniest characters as he showed the results of a bit too much caffeine and way too little sleep in a big rig full of gas or oil. Finally, Garrard turned into Spud Farley, a guy Savannah longs to meet again, a guy Mama is trying desperately to have Savannah avoid. Turns out he’s changed a lot since Savannah saw him last. I’m not going to reveal this bit of magic, but suffice to say he gets the best costume award in this show.
For all these characters, this show was way over-the-top. Actors, as a rule, hate to hear that, but in this case, it was called for and they delivered. Each character was flawed and outrageously eccentric. And the situations they experienced were exaggerated. So we saw actors who went to the extremes of comedic play. Think of Jim Carey, Andy Kaufman, Don Knotts, Dick van Dyke. This kind of physical comedy demands full commitment to the character’s story, to physically expressing their belief in that character’s urgent desires, and an ease in delivering text with a plethora of one-liners, without trying to be outlandishly funny. All these actors performed their extreme, over-the-top characters admirably.
It may be possible that the humor of social media has changed the landscape for humorous stories like this. Mama Won’t Fly would have gotten loud guffaws ten years ago. Today it competes with cats dressed like aliens or people crashing in wacked-out sports? And so the humor is big, but the laughs are sparse. If it’s true, its’ sad.
Though it might not have been as good as little goats dropping dead when frightened, this was high, physical-pratfall humor with a message, and you’ll either smile, grin or laugh out loud. Either way you’ll get the message. Treat Mama right. She might have a big surprise for you.
Theatre Arlington, 305 W. Main St. Arlington, TX 76010
Plays through August 23rd
Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday & Saturday at 8:00 pm; Sunday at 2:00 pm. Regular adult admission: $22; Seniors (62+) and full-time students: $20; Student rush tickets; $5. For information and tickets, visit www.theatrearlington.org or call (817) 275-7661.