The Exact Center of the Universe

The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre opened it final show of the 2008-2009 season with Joan Vail Thorne’s comedy-drama The Exact Center of the Universe. It will be on stage until May 30th at 716 Ocean Street, Atlantic Beach Florida. For reservations call 249-7177 or visit their website at
It is hard to find wiry old fashion wiry Southern plays these days but this is one. If you liked Driving Miss Daisy or Steel Magnolias, you are going to love this show.
It is the story of Southern White blue bloods in the l950s and ’60s, in a world that revolves around the central character Vada Love Powell, a bossy widow and possessive mother who serves up tea, taste treats and her very prejudiced opinions.
The exact center of her universe is her 35 years old son Appleton who has avoided marriage because Vada scares off all prospective wives in quick order. The play opens as Vada thinks she is putting a prospect in her place when she suddenly learns her son has run eloped without her knowledge or consent.
The next scene is the next day, with Vada having tea and playing canasta with her two cronies,
Enid and Marybell in a tree-house with Vada trying to save face, because young Mary Ann has plucked her “Apple” from her life!
Act II is ten years later, same old cronies, two new grandchildren we never see. There is one main problem that this act is built around. Vada has concerns with her grandchildren taking photos by their anthropologist aunt of undressed savages to school and expresses this to their mother. Vada is much bothered as well by the nude statues at the local museum even though they are marble and half the time their privates are missing!!
That is as far as I will take you in the plot since I don’t want to spoil the surprises you will discover when you see it. This play succeeds not only because it is well written but because of a remarkably good cast.
Carla Lahey, who was last seen in OPTC’s Play On, is very attractive and splendid as the identical twins, Mary Lou and Mary Ann. Gwen Cordes is a theatre veteran who has been honing her acting talents weekly for several years as a member of the senior group, “The Vintage Players”. She is wonderful as Enid, a retired school teacher who never had children. In Act II, Enid has lapsed into dementia, and Miss Cordes gives a wonderfully sad yet funny portrayal of what appears to be happening to many old folks too often these days.
Annett Page has been active on the local stages since l993 and I can honestly say I have seen every one of the more than a dozen plays she has appeared in. As Marybell, a very earthy and funny older lady with a special secret, Ms. Page gives her absolutely best performance ever. I loved the little nuances and gestures, she used, especially in the tree-house scene.
Del Austin is Appleton and is perfect for the role, with his wrinkled white suit, Panama hat and beard, he looked Southern. (Actually he reminded me of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). As Apple, he also narrates the play, and has many hilarious moments as the adored 35 year old.
This is a play that rises and falls on the main character, Vada, who is on stage almost every moment of the play. Libra Gysel (better known as L.J.) gives the audience a lesson in acting with an unsurpassed performance as the widow who bustles about manipulating others to the strict rules that she lives by, using smooth words and raised eyebrows to get her bidding. Just Imagine the audience bursting into laughter from just the words, “Tea or Coffee?” as uttered by the loveable Vada. Yes, indeed a truly charming and unique lady.
Director Celia Frank designed the cozy living room of Vada as well as the very unique tree-house located on the left of the stage. The tree-house was tricky to get into in the dark but Stage Manger Janet Davies kept things moving smoothly the entire show.
Margaret Hennessey was the costume consultant and worked with the cast to find interesting apparel of that era. (I loved the hats!!) The light and sound design was excellent under the watchful eyes of Bryan Frank, Brandon Baughn and Andrew McCraney. I liked the well conceived program that not only had the dates of the production on the front cover, but good and informative biographies of the actors. The Exact Center of The Universe is delightful and not to be missed.
ABET has announced its 2009-2010 season which starts in September. It will feature two world premiers by local playwrights. I will have more details on all the theaters’ seasons in a story later in the summer.