ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID: Southern Women Ensemble Humor Strikes Again
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834
Performances: May 19 – June 30, 2018 [Note: Opening weekend was postponed due to flooding from regional spring storms]
Ticket Prices: $38 Theater only; $55 Dinner & Theater
Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com
Director Tom Width fondly refers to Always a Bridesmaid as a “comedy of recognition” because viewers are likely to recognize themselves or a family member or friend in the broadly drawn, zany characters. Written by the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jaime Wooten, who also gave us The Dixie Swim Club and The Hallelujah Girls, Always a Bridesmaid is an amalgam of television sitcom and every southern woman ensemble play you’ve ever seen – from Dixie Swim Club to Hallelujah Girls and let’s not forget Steel Magnolias.
There’s nothing deep here, no life-changing moral theme, no political controversy, just good-natured female bonding and free-flowing laughs, built around the premise of four friends who made a vow during their high school prom to be bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. Who knew, at the time, that some of them might get married multiple times and this promise might evolve into a life-long, even multi-generational covenant?
The best thing about this production of Always a Bridesmaid is the cast. Amy Berlin is the statuesque and sharp-tongued Monette. In the first scene she is about to jump into the murky waters of her third marriage – to a man she has known for just about two weeks. Already the tallest of the quartet, Monette favors stiletto heels, which sets up the foundation for a running joke as well as some not so subtle physical humor. Jacqueline Jones is Libby Ruth, who in good southern form is always referred to by both names. For most of the play, Libby Ruth is the level-headed, perpetually cheerful member of the group, the one who always sees the bright side of things and finds a solution to every problem. But in the final scene, when it’s her own daughter who is getting married, she folds up like a lace fan.
Debra Wagoner is Deedra, a high-powered judge who uses a smile and southern charm to mask her steel trap legal mind. Wagoner, whose own real-life wedding to husband Joe Pabst took place at Swift Creek Mill 23 years ago, is walking with a slight limp in her first role after her debilitating fall resulting in a broken ankle during last fall’s production of Mary Poppins, but it never showed on her face. Jennie Hundley completes the quartet as Charlie, perhaps the quirkiest of them all. A landscaper, Charlie prefers pants and Birkenstocks and when we first meet her, her friends are trying to tame her wild nest of hair, which is home to leaves and other bits of flora. Watching Charlie stumble about in a pair of heels during one of the weddings is one of the most hilarious moments of the evening.
It is worthy of note that with the exception of Libby Ruth, who appears to be a happily married housewife and mother, these southern women are independent business women and professionals. Deedra is a judge, Monette owns a club, and Charlie owns her own landscaping business. But they are not the only characters bringing something to this table.
Jody Smith Strickler plays Sedalia, the owner of the elegant venue where all the scenes take place. Historic Laurelton Oaks, in Laurelton, Virginia, twenty miles northwest of Richmond is the setting for the entire play, which takes place over a period of seven years. Sedalia is known for providing top notch wedding services, but she rules her domain with an iron fist – and occasionally wields an axe to keep recalcitrant brides in line and on schedule. You’d better be at that top step when the first note of the wedding march begins – or else! Last but not least, there is Rachel Hindman as Kari, Libby Ruth’s daughter, who appears as a bride giving her reception speech at the start of each scene. Sipping from a champagne glass, Kari becomes increasingly tipsy at each appearance, and shares such tidbits as the restraining order on her uncle was temporarily reduced to 30 feet from his estranged wife so that both could attend her wedding. In a “small world” turn of events, Kari is marrying Sedalia’s son.
It’s all very cozy and nothing really bad ever happens. There is an off-stage fight, but no one dies and it’s all love and kisses at the final curtain. Physical and visual laughs are provided by a fashion parade of ugly bridesmaid dresses, including a French maid, and a Marie Antoinette costume worn by Monette that is so big Charlie can hide behind her without even bending down. Kudos to Maura Lynch Cravey for her creativity and diversity in costume design for this show. Tom Width designed the elegant sitting room.
Personally, after some three-weeks of being housebound after two surgeries, this was the perfect outing for me. While I did not recognize any of these women from my immediate circle – I am after all, from Brooklyn – I did recognize them from other plays and sitcoms, and I thank them for bringing laughter and joy, with a nod to loyalty and love.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill