The Panhandle Players outdid themselves before a packed Chapman Auditorium last weekend. While I never fail to laugh myself silly at their productions, a number of patrons at Sweet Tea on the Front Porch agreed this play, which set a box office record for the community theater troupe, was the funniest they have ever experienced. The audience went away happy and still laughing.

Local playwright Jerry Hurley has created a play that combines popular 20th century pop culture elements such as Bonnie and Clyde characters, a white-suited and gun-holstered Boss Hogg type, the infamous 1923 Rosewood, Florida massacre, front-porch and sweet-tea life, race prejudice, domestic violence, and a hilarious means of ethics control delivered via arsenic-and-old-lace methods. An unannounced guest appearance by Sheriff AJ Smith in full uniform, including hat, boots, and silver star, added polish to the production.

Planning and preparation by director Judy Loftus, stage manager Liz Sisung and crew, set design by Mark and Natalie Parsley, and other technical matters were both creative and professional, including a stuffed cat, Daffodil, deceased and refurbished pet of sister Alice. Porch rockers and stoops reminded me of the front porch life I knew in my Apalachicola childhood. According to my seat neighbor and former St. George Island resident, Adele Colston, the set was quite imaginative and crafty.

Dorothy Cooper, longtime local resident and business owner, described the play as “the funniest Panhandle Players play I have seen.” The two sisters, Minnie (played by Mishelle McPherson) and Alice (Renee Valentine), acted with natural poise both serious and humorous scenes, so that the audience sympathized with their efforts to be good citizens, even into the serving of their ”sweet” tea to deserving characters. Both ladies, avid flower gardeners, made sure to plant roses and other bloomers at the resting sites of defunct tea drinkers. According to Minnie, “bad people make the best fertilizer.”

One bad person, sister Alice’s estranged husband, blunders onstage cussing and threatening. He has looked for her from Dothan and other parts south, and means to take her back to Georgia. Played in his most impressive Henry Kozlowsky style, abusive Versey Clark will drink his duly earned tea. Versey’s meanness is balanced by the kindness of letter and gossip carrier Gus Magee (David Stedman) who unsuccessfully proposes to sister Alice.

A delightful surprise, Elaine Kozlowsky as Buttercup, the local mean-spirited gossip, deserves an honorary Southern Belle award for her part, practically singing with y’alls and other charming Southernisms. Another portrayal with spell-binding appeal is the white-suited, pompous, Southern good ol’ boy, Col. Cornelius Cropwell, played by David Adlerstein. Both act through their demise-by-drink like true tea addicts in their final throes.

Eric Olson as William Hughes, the escaped suspect who is innocent of the ugly doings at Rosewood, is convincing as a desperate fugitive: he is served tea without the additives. Years later when he returns with his daughter, JT (Camille Williams) as a successful New York businessman, and even later as the sisters’ heir, he appears confident in dealing with unscrupulous charlatan JJ Rayburn (Bob Inguagiato) who covets the property.

Royce Rolstad III appears as Clyde Barrow with his partner Bonnie (Alexis Shefka) and flees with her mere moments before the real 1934 sheriff is about to arrive to arrest them. I have known Royce as an artist at playing any role that finds him, and he did not disappoint. We surely will see more of newbie Shefka in future Panhandle Player productions.

Hats off to the Panhandle Players cast and crew.

Eastpoint resident Dawn Evans Radford is a local writer and instructor.