Shore's gals of summer

"Steel Magnolias" at Cape May Stage stars Nicole Lowrance (right) as Annelle and Ellen Dolan as Truvy.
"Steel Magnolias" at Cape May Stage stars Nicole Lowrance (right) as Annelle and Ellen Dolan as Truvy. (KEVIN THOMAS GARCIA)
Posted: August 16, 2011

The women have it all over the men down the Shore this summer - at least on stage. During lemming time, the current period when Philadelphians seem to flock to Jersey beaches with an innate urge, the three professional theaters within our beach radar generally offer their lightest fare - a sort of Jersey-fresh cucumber-and-tomato sandwich platter of the stage. And this summer, those plates honor the women.

At Surflight Theatre on Long Beach Island, audiences are watching Neil Simon's malleable The Odd Couple, which turned from a Broadway show in 1965 into a movie and after that, a TV sitcom. But it's not the play's two mismatched roomies, Felix and Oscar, they see here. In this case, it's Florence and Olive - the female version Simon wrote about two decades after his original.

The catty group of gals in the Louisiana beauty shop of Steel Magnolias is at it, full throttle, at Cape May Stage. Robert Harling's play came to Broadway in 1987 - two years before the wildly successful movie with a bang-up cast that included Dolly Parton, Sally Field, and Shirley MacLaine.

And a few streets from Cape May Stage's intimate theater built neatly into a former church, another professional stage company produces inside a working church: East Lynne Theater Company, where the late wit and Algonquin Roundtable queen Dorothy Parker currently takes over in a world-premiere, four-member production that highlights her poetry and fiction - much of it about women's reactions of the last early-middle American century.

Gals, you have taken over.

JoAnne Worley, who became a star on TV's Laugh-In, and Cindy Williams, from Laverne & Shirley, head up the skilled cast of Surflight's The Odd Couple. In the traditional male version, a man's marriage has broken up, and he moves into the apartment of one of his best friends. The men tend to settle differences with a salty aggression. In the female version, in which a woman breaks up and moves in with a friend, things seem much more cartoonish, at least under the direction of Billy Van Zandt.

I like the cartoon quality of the characters, though, and the women, gathering to play Trivial Pursuit or dish (or both), are a hoot - so much so, the female version has a giddy lightness that makes the play more fun than the original. As in the male version, the six pals are all neatly drawn and quite different from one another, and the folks upstairs - two guys in this instance - drive the plot to a new level.

Worley is the insufferably fastidious roomie and Williams the proprietor of the apartment. They have natural chemistry on stage, and the show itself employs a feminine chemistry that gives it an edge.

I wish the stage version of Steel Magnolias contained that sort of robust blend, but its beauty parlor full of locals is more glib than gleeful - these gals are out for writerly barbs more scripted than natural. In Cape May Stage artistic director Roy Steinberg's production, however, the transparently manipulative script bows to the performances themselves; this Steel Magnolias is a textbook example of ensemble acting.

The six-member cast, headed by Ellen Dolan playing the beauty-shop owner, Karen Ziemba as the mom next store, and Meredith Riley Stewart as her diabetic daughter, is a treat; you couldn't get six women who react to one another as if they've been thrown into close-knit hick-town lives better unless they were, say, in a close-knit hick town. Nicole Lowrance, Kate McCauley Hathaway, and Marlena Lustik round out the talented players.

I never saw the movie, so I can't say how the stage version compares. I doubt, though, that the film takes two reels or so to get going, yet the entire first act of the live version is more a pleasant distraction than a play. By intermission, we're still not sure why we've been invited into this beauty shop.

The second act contains the entire plot, which awkwardly blends comedy with tragedy, although the keen actors try to make both elements as organic as possible. The playwright, also known for film's The First Wives Club, wrote some muscular lines, and as a diabetic, I could relate to the '80s notions about that disease. As an adoptive dad, I couldn't buy into what the play says about the rigid rules for adoption at the time. In the end, the acting was enough to make the evening.

"They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm," Dorothy Parker once wrote, of the enticing spell cast by excitement. Well, I bet the cast and creative team of The World of Dorothy Parker are pretty sick of the storm.

A little more than a week ago, one of the four actors in the show, Tiffany-Leigh Moskow, who plays the critical part of an ingenue, took a fall and fractured a foot (not in the theater). Gayle Stahlhuth, who adapted Parker's work for the show and directs it, filled in some scenes and Moskow took the heftier ingenue scenes until a replacement could be hired and was ready.

That turned out to be a lovely young actress named Megan McDermott, and when I saw the show Friday night, she was in her third performance and shining - so much so, she made the show work. (She has the most to do in it, truth to tell.) So I crown her this summer's trouper.

But wait, there's more. During Friday's show, the black-scrim backdrop that separates a working church altar from the playing stage fell, as in slow motion, over John Cameron Weber as he entered stage rear, about to speak. No one and nothing was hurt except for the show's natural progression. The other two performers in this cabaretlike prose production are Drew Seltzer as an agreeable young man and Suzanne Dawson as a worldly woman.

Parker's work, at least what's in this show, is never strikingly witty, and two major scenes of storytelling feature a woman who appears to misread or purposely misinterpret the simple intentions of her man. A surprising undercurrent of sexism ran through the show, especially for a writer ahead of her time. For these current times, it's clear that the East Lynne company needs a real theater for its work.


On Stages at the Shore

Steel Magnolias is playing through Sept. 10 at Cape May Stage, 31 Perry St., Cape May. Tickets: $35.

Information: 609-884-1341 or www.capemaystage.com.

The World of Dorothy Parker is an East Lynne Theater Company production, through Sept. 3, at First Presbyterian Church, 500 Hughes St., Cape May. Tickets: $30. Information: 609-884-5898 or www.eastlynnetheater.org.

The Odd Couple, a female version, is playing through Sunday at Surflight Theatre, 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven, N.J. Tickets: $36-$54. Information: 609-492-9477 or www.surflight.org.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

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