It is difficult to overstate the significance of Sunday afternoon’s standing ovation by Chapman Auditorium theatregoers that concluded a three-day run of “Secrets and Sweet Tea,” the Panhandle Players’ opening show of this year’s season.
Certainly, audiences have loved many of the plays put on over the last several decades by the Forgotten Coast’s premier community theatre troupe.
But this comedy by new playwright Jerry Hurley, drew waves of hilarity that were they recorded, could have made a great laugh track for future shows whenever jokes fell on unmoved ears.
The show drew a reaction from the audience and an energy and enthusiasm from cast and crew, that prompted Tom Loughridge, a longtime Players’ actor and director (and who performed as the shady mayor in the show) to call it the best show Players has ever done.
Now there have been some fine productions that could contest Loughridge’s claim, but there’s no doubt Hurley’s work, which seems destined for future productions in the world of regional theater, if not beyond, was a very high point for Players.
Hurley, a native West Virginian, retired from a career in education, living fulltime in Apalachicola, wrote the play after achieving success with his first book “Wildcrafting and Other Stories I Share Only With My Friends,” comic recollections from his childhood growing up in the hills and hollows of central Appalachia.
He drew on these remembrances (he told me he used his first Polaroid camera to take pictures in the town’s funeral parlor) and the power of his softly twisted imagination to create a well-woven comedy that reveals the human truths behind the often stilted and masked affair that marks our saying goodbye to loved ones.
In this case, the dearly departed is millionaire Sam Strainwhistle, and to further connect it to the audience, Hurley set it in Franklin County, while keeping the satire generic, with no fingers pointed angrily at any locals. No, Hurley’s hands were folded across his chest, as he lay placidly throughout the entire second act of the show in a coffin on loan from Comforter Funeral Home for the occasion.
In addition to his wisdom in softening the sting of the script’s riding crop, he handed the reins of his thoroughbred over to Judy Loftus, one of Players’ best directors, and gave her and assistant David Stedman free rein to run it as she saw fit. She cast as fine a set of actors the troupe can summon, and in their passion for the production, they in turn made changes that further brought to hilarious life Hurley’s work.
First-time Players actor Eric Olson, perhaps because he was new to the troupe, decided he needed to funk up his part of Ken Carpenter, the arrogant town stud and possibly Strainwhistle’s illegitimate son, eager for a share of the old man’s fortune to better fund his dissipated ways. A former boxer and now physical trainer, with a build that fits the part, Olson secured approval for the comic touches from the writer and director. Which all led to a superb debut for the young actor, a glorious introduction into Players’ ranks.
Megan Shiver, who needs no introduction given her marvelous previous work with the company, also made some enhancements to the bitchy female lead, Beulah Mae Strainwhistle, Sam’s daughter. She spiced up the role in this “comedy for mature audiences” to further bring out the contrast between a woman who could feign pious tears one moment, and break out cussing the next. The energy and relish she brought to the show set a standard for the entire cast, and they met it.
Coming in late to the production, after it had to be postponed due to Hurricane Michael from its original October date, was Joan Matey as Betty Bender, the town hussy with a heart of gold, one of the few sincere members of the community. Her meticulous costume, blingy, semi-trashy but never nasty, which culminated in the flash of red panties visible to the audience as she bent over the casket, outfitted a performance that was never late in the delivery of her punchlines, a few of which Hurley borrowed from Mae West. You won’t ever see Matey around town in skirts as short and tight as she wore, but it is safe to say that it’s nice you can’t unsee them.
As the town dimwit, Woody Stump, Royce Rolstad again showed himself a master of caricature and of comic timing, squeezing every last squirt out of Hurley’s fountain pen. Rolstad revels in his roles, and in this case he made his shuffling, lisping, wise fool Woody indelible. A director as well as a writer, his original play “Murder at the Gibson,” a follow-up to his first murder mystery last season, will grace the Chapman on Feb 8 to 10, the next play in Players’ 2018-19 season.
A key factor in the success of Hurley’s work was the energy brought to each of the roles. Veteran actress Liz Sisung, who stepped in as Ruby Butterworth, the funeral home cleaning lady, after Bonnie Casey had to relocate from her Gulf County home following the hurricane, was a spritely senior citizen. Doubling as stage manager, Sisung was compelling as she played across from her grandson, Jeremy (River Sheridan), an aspiring doctor who befriended Sam Strainwhistle when he mowed his law. Sheridan, a Franklin County High School student with a wealth of acting credits already to his name, also played piano when the cast sang “Shall We Gather at the Apalachicola River,” Hurley’s comic rewrite of the famous hymn.
Music was a leavening aspect to the show, preserving the sanctity of the subject matter of death while sharing the all-too-human aspects of how we react to it. The show opened with a bluegrass trio of Brooks Jones, Sandi McInnis, and Veniece Kennedy warming up the audience in the half-hour preceding the curtain.
Equally moving was the work of pianist Barry Hand, and a trio of Tami Ray Hutchinson, Zack Jones and Tasia Jones, who sang appropriate gospel songs, including the Andrae Crouch hit, “Soon and Very Soon,” during the intermission, while audience members had a chance to file past the coffin.
Actor Scott Wilson, as the proprietor of the “Sladen, Butcher & Barry Mortuary,” played in eerie, exotic fashion reminiscent of Boris Karloff, had invited the audience to come up and view the deceased, while also encouraging sale of 50/50 raffle tickets, a portion of which went to the Kaleidoscope Theatre in Panama City, which sustained extensive damage in the hurricane. Each of the drawings’ winners donated their portion back to the Players, for which they were most grateful.
The supporting cast for the show could not have been better. The two ladies who flanked Beulah at every turn Gertie Gilkerson (Jeana Crozier) and Ida Shellingsworth (Katie Davis) were a perfect balance. Davis used her wholesome, girl-next-door innocence to maximum effect, masking with charm Shellingsworth’s ugly side. Crozier revealed the subtlety of her character, a friend who weathers the callousness of her friends and who doesn’t shy away from openly sharing her attraction to Carpenter. In naming her part, Hurley paid tribute to a late friend, Grady Gilkerson, who served with him in Vietnam.
Loughridge, as Mayor Clark, and Bob Inguagiato as Pastor Neaze, brought out the simple exactness of Hurley’s humor, liberally sprinkled with corn but pointed in its chewing on kernels of truth. Neaze’s “eulogy” especially, was masterful. As the attorney who reads the will, Apalachicola attorney Torben Madson drew on both his acting talents and his lawyerly manner to play a character who not so coincidentally had the name of Thorbin Maston.
Once again, Players’ set designer and builder Mark Parsley created a superb set, with the subtle plastic-flower plainness of a tacky funeral home, down to the generic still life paintings on the wall. Ramon Valenzuela lit it all up flawlessly, and with Natalie Parsley overseeing props and wardrobe, and Anna Carmichael doing make-up, it all worked well.
Thanks of course to Hurley, who already is at work on a more serious play for next season. Audiences have much to look forward to.
David Adlerstein, a member of the Panhandle Players, board of directors, was assisted in this article by theatregoer Mel Kelly.