FIRST BAPTIST OF IVY GAPby Ron Osborne
The Firehouse Theatre
Direction by John Wilkerson
Stage Management by Joshua Hahlen
Costume Design by Barbara Cox and Margaret Wilkerson
Scenic, Lighting and Sound Design by Jason Leyva
CAST (in order of appearance)
Suzy Dotson as Luby Moore
Kiani Stone as Olene Wiffer
Meredith Miller Higgins as Mae Ellen Rafferty
Lucia Welch as Edith Ellington
Christina Waller as Sammy Porter
Julie Phillips as Vera Reynolds
Reviewed Performance: 9/19/2014
Reviewed by Richard Blake, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The play travels through twenty five years in the lives of six women, all members of the church, First Baptist of Ivy Gap. The first act starts during WWII where the women gather at the church to roll bandages and plan the church's 75th anniversary. Overseeing things is Edith, the pastor's wise-cracking wife who dispenses Red Cross smocks and witty repartee. She is aided by Luby, whose son is fighting in the Pacific; Mae Ellen, the church's rebellious organist who wants to quit working at the church but hasn't the courage; Olene, who dreams of a career in Hollywood; Sammy, a shy newcomer with a secret; and Vera, a hard-core, influential Baptist with a secret of her own. The second act takes place twenty-five years later during the Vietnam War, with a reunion of the original six women and how their lives, moral outlook and societal perceptions have or haven’t changed over the years.
The script by Ron Osborne has its good and bad moments. Act One has way too much exposition and tends to lag, but the talented women in the cast still succeed in making it entertaining and interesting to watch. Act Two is much better, delving deeper into actual character driven moments, with more poignant scenes.
Direction by the highly seasoned John Wilkerson is concise, story-driven and well executed. Even with the difficulties in some moments of the script, he keeps you engaged in the story and focused on the appropriate character being discussed. His actresses move with purpose around the small stage and never once look as if they’re out of place or uneasy in a scene. The only impediments to the play’s flow are the scene changes, being way too long and taking one out of the story. In fact, I found myself starting to get nervous as if there was a problem backstage. I know there are full cast costume changes happening in some transitions, and as this was opening weekend, maybe those will speed up as the cast gets more adept at changing quickly. Overall, the show is directed well and is very engaging.
Jason Leyva’s scenic, lighting and sound design are simple and effective. The show is presented in a lovely, proscenium-like theatre space in the Farmers Branch public library and Mr. Leyva nicely transforms the space for the locations of the story. He uses a fixed set, representing the Baptist church’s meeting hall, with slightly raised levels, time period set decoration and balanced flow patterns. Pay attention to some of the wall decorations and you might say to yourself, “I remember that in my...” and break into a little smile. The lighting is minimal yet has some special simple moments. A practical porch light on Luby’s front porch gives a warm atmosphere to a lovely intimate scene. Tying the scene design with his sound design, Mr. Leyva succeeds again in adding another style layer to the production by using actual voiceover clips and songs from the time periods between scenes.
Costume Design by Barbara Cox and Margaret Wilkerson wonderfully represent the time period. Distinctions in each woman’s personality are mostly well executed, including the hairstyles and wigs representing both major eras. The second act’s fashions, from the dresses to shoes and sunglasses, are well coordinated, but some of the hairstyles are a bit off period. Granted, it isn’t easy to age actresses twenty five years during a fifteen minute intermission, but less attention to detail is paid to the hairstyles compared to the first act. This design duo does, however, present some visually exciting designs throughout.
This play requires a strong ensemble of women to make it work. The actresses on Firehouse’s stage are just that - strong, confident, and each presents perfect character choices. Even with the script being weak in places, the character arcs are not and require subtle nuances from each actress to move the story forward. Most of the women are performing with The Firehouse Theatre for the first time, and I hope they will be back for many more shows to come. The entire cast is a pleasure to watch and well deserving of the standing ovation they received.
Suzy Dotson, as Luby Moore, opens the show as a devoted, widowed mother who serves her community and church without question. Ms. Dotson takes that personality and turns it on its end as the story progresses. She gives great depth to the role and her performance is a pleasure to watch. From subtle looks and disapproving glances to raw emotional outbursts, she fully engages you in her role.
Olene Wiffer, played by Kiani Stone, is just a firecracker onstage! The interesting part of that description is the way Ms. Stone takes a shy country girl and transforms her into a, let’s just say, very open woman later in the play. There is finesse to this actress that keeps you interested and wondering just what will come next. Even her physical prowess changes as the story progresses, which is very impressive. Ms. Stone looks as though she loves every moment on stage; I know I did watching her performance.
Meredith Miller Higgins, as Mae Ellen Rafferty, the seemingly unhappy choir director and organist of the Baptist church, is perfect in the role. Another very strong actress, she gives enormous depth to her character, going from confident and sometimes belligerent to subdued and emotionally broken. Every moment she’s on stage you’re waiting to see what she offers next and are never disappointed.
Edith Ellington, portrayed by Lucia Welch, is a star in this production! From the moment she walks onstage, you are drawn to her with her delivery and facial expressions. Playing the minister’s wife, Ms. Welch plays with both Edith’s actual personality and what the church community sees. Her hilarious one-liners, and then vested emotional comforting of others, is perfect. Ms. Welch’s ability to portray great moments of tension displays her exceptional talent making her a true pleasure to watch.
Christina Waller, as Sammy Porter, the young “new-comer” to the Baptist church, plays the role with a unique subtlety and innocence. Ms. Waller’s transformation of that innocence into a powerful, strong and confident mother in Act Two is breathtaking. Never once does her character’s switch in personality come across as contrived or forced, and throughout the story you are engaged with her acting talent.
Julie Phillips as Vera Reynolds plays the epitome of a devout Baptist woman. She may be last to grace the stage, but is the first to make you laugh and take notice. From her physical presence, standing tall, shoulders back and with head held high, to her line delivery and glances of disgust, Ms. Phillips commands the stage. Even with all her prowess and strength she never once pulls focus except when required by her character, showing her professionalism as an actress.
The Firehouse Theatre’s presentation of First Baptist of Ivy Gap is entertaining, has cast wonderfully talented actresses, and even made this Roman Catholic giggle from time to time with the play’s religious representations of community and church. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, you’ll thoroughly enjoy your visit to Ivy Gap... well, currently in Farmer’s Branch, Texas that is!
The Firehouse Theatre
Performed at the Manske Library
13613 Webb Chapel Road
Farmers Branch, TX 75234
Runs through October 5th, 2014
Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm.
Tickets range from $14.00 - $18.00.
For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit: www.thefirehousetheatre.com or call the box office at (972) 620-3747.