The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET) opened its second show of the 2010-2011 season with Nat Sanders’s wacky, off the wall comedy The Sugar Bean Sisters. This is the Jacksonville premier of this 1995 play, which was produced in 1995 at Gainesville’s Hippodrome Theatre. If you are a fan of Southern Gothic Comedy (Think Dearly Departed or Daddy’s Dying…Who’s Got the Will?) you are absolutely going love this play. The majority of the opening night audience found the ridiculous plot endearing and responded with waves of laughter.
The setting is a rustic cabin in a swamp in the small fictitious town of Sugar Bean somewhere in Central Florida not far from Disney World. Set Designer Jen Fortune has made the setting one of the stars of the show. Clumps of sugar cane are everywhere, on stage and in every corner of the theatre. The interior of the cabin is constructed with untreated weathered boards, brightened by strands of Christmas tree lights. Furnishings include a bed covered with a colorful quilt, wooden furniture, and a few open shelves that hold baskets and kitchen implements. There’s no doubt we’re in theVery Deep South.
The two sisters, Faye and Willie, are two very different people who share the living space, a history, and a recent conversion to the Mormon religion, but little else.
Faye Clementine Nettles is played by Deborah Hurm who has been a very busy lady with appearances on almost every stage in this area in plays such as Dearly Departed, Picnic, Aussie Song, To Kill a Mockingbird and Driving Miss Daisy. Ms. Hurm’s impressive performance as Faye even makes the character a bit likable despite the fact she has a potty mouth, and sneaks a drink now and then. After all Faye is famous, currently appearing on the cover of that now defunct tabloid Weekly World News proclaiming that the Aliens who visited her some years ago, are COMIN’ BACK FOR ME! She helps out by putting out a platter of sandwiches in the middle of a nearby field so they won’t be hungry as they search for her.
Willie, played by Karen Garrett, is also middle-aged but younger than Faye, and in keeping with her recent religious conversion, wants to find a worthy spouse so she can ascend to the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom after death. She hopes to marry a handsome Mormon minister, The Bishop Crumbly (played with proper reverence and rectitude by Daniel Adam Osofsky). Willie does not cuss, drink, or smoke, but is bald and wears a frizzy Eva Gabor wig. This role as Southern damsel is a first for the versatile Karen Garrett. She has been seen in many memorable performances over the years, including roles as Lizzy Borden and Maria Callas, and also roles that required a mastery of Irish and Russian accents. She is a hoot and a half as the eccentric Willie.
We had seen Maggie Martin at ABET previously in Rear End, and Rose’s Dilemma, but she really comes into her own in The Sugar Bean Sisters with a terrific performance as Videllia Sparks, a mysterious visitor who drops in on the sisters, hoping to see the Aliens, and to persuade the sisters to give her a large sum of money.Videllia works as a stripper in a birdcage in the Evil People Lounge in New Orleans, and arrives costumed as a bird with bright purple feathers, which was definitely a highlight of the costuming by Cheryl and Kiernan O’Connor.
Okwuoma Blandin rounds out the cast as the marvelous and mysterious snake charmer known as The Reptile Woman. Ms Blandin’s wonderful Caribbean accent and haunting laughter certainly cast a spell over a very appreciative audience.
Bryan Frank’s creative lighting (including spaceship lights) complemented the set. We also thought the sound effects were excellent, from the scary swamp sounds to the teeth-rattling thunder.
Director Caryl Buttlerly has cast the show well, and with her years of experience found every visual and vocal comic moment in the script of this zany gothic spookiness.
Kudos to ABET Managing Artistic Director, Ceila Frank for creating an exciting and unusual program, which looks like a tabloid newspaper and has excellent biographies of the cast and crew.
If funny dialogue and situations in a play turn you on, you’ll get your money’s worth and then some when you see The Sugar Bean Sisters at the Adele Grage Center in Atlantic Beach Florida, on stage through November 6th. Call 249-7177 or visit their website at for additional information.