COURTESY OF THE MAJESTIC THEATRE
Clockwise, from top left: Diane Edwards Slamp (Sheree Hollinger), Cathy Willoughby (Lexie Richards), Dorrie Board (Dinah Grayson), Sarah Sullivan (Jeri Neal) McFeeley), and Kathie O'Brien (Vernadette Simms) relax, bicker, and do declare on the beaches of North Carolina in the Majestic Readers' Theater Company's "The Sweet Delilah Swim Club."
A splash of life
The Majestic Readers' Theatre Company visits 'The Sweet Delilah Swim Club'
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
(oh, so few of those), it’s a rise in the value of theatrical character studies, the jettisoning of elaborate sets and costumes to focus on dialogue. Scene changes these days? Nearly instantaneous.
The Sweet Delilah Swim Club seems tailored for such times — as does the Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company, where voice takes precedence over ornamentation. Written in 2007 by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten and initially published as The Dixie Swim Club, the two-acter tracks five Southern women, all friends since a college swim-team stint, as they congregate for North Carolina weekends over a 30-year period, from ages 44 to 77.
Audiences can eavesdrop at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, through an access link that will then remain active for 24 hours. Admission is $10-$20. For tickets or more information, visit the Majestic Theatre online. Ah, coronavirus logic. Seems routine anymore.
Of course, director Deborah Wren pitched the play months before the world sealed tight — twice. Actress Kathie O’Brien, who would eventually be cast in Delilah, gave her the script last year. Wren immediately saw the project's potential as an ideal, female-driven (the script makes that emphasis crystal clear, a man-free zone onstage, period; no cute stunts allowed) vehicle for the company’s impressive stable.
“It touched me, the bonding of these women,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “The Majestic has this group of women ‘of a certain age’ that are just amazing. There aren’t a lot of roles in plays that can facilitate these kinds of actresses. When I saw that, I said, ‘Oh, this is something to showcase the talent here.’ I wanted to find something that leaned more toward ‘mature’ women, shall we say.
"Plus, I laughed. If I’m reading and I laugh out loud, I know it’s going to work.”
She selected her cast from videotaped auditions. Although the Sweet Delilah women are contemporaries on paper — college friends, after all — the actresses didn’t necessarily need to be of similiar age. Wren sought chemistry, five women who could convincingly convey lifelong closeness while inhabiting their individual characters’ spirits. She succeeded in that regard, landing a diverse array of players between their 30s and 50s who each brought important elements to the production.
Cathy Willoughby, known for her work with McMinnvile’s Gallery Theater, makes her Readers’ debut as Lexie Richards, whom Wren likens to Rue McClanahan’s ribald Blanche Devereaux on ’80s NBC sitcom The Golden Girls. “It was wonderful to see the progression from where she started to where she ended,” Wren said. “She never stopped discovering things.” Stage regular Dorrie Board (Ada and the Engine, The Odd Couple (The Female Version), Rando Extravagando, and a zillion other productions) copped an Eve Arden comparison for Dinah Grayson, described in materials as “the wise-cracking cynic of the group.” According to Wren, Board and Willoughby evolved well together. “I’d give them what I was looking for,” she said, “you know, where this is, when to be vulnerable. To see how they worked it out and progressed on their own, to see how an amazing actress could find even more was a delight.”
Kathie O’Brien (On the Verge, Bloomsday) surprised Wren with her Vernadette Simms, the circle’s resident self-deprecator. “She plays a character I’ve never seen her play before,” Wren said. “When I did some of the casting, I tried to help them as actresses grow out of their niches that I’ve usually seen them do. Kathie just knew how to throw a punchline. I never knew she was that funny. We would work on the beats and how to get to that point, and she was marvelous."
The youngest cast member, Sarah Sullivan (Albany Civic Theater’s Pride and Prejudice), tackled perhaps the production’s most complicated figure, Jeri Neal McFeeley, who appears sunny on the surface but grows in nuance and experience over time. "She had to play so many levels,” Wren said, “sweet and innocent. She still has to maintain that innocence, as well as an awareness of life.”
Last seen on these pages as an acting coach in the Readers’ Theatre’s most recent offering, Women Playing Hamlet (we shil ourselves art last!), Diane Edwards Slamp lends a sharp leadership quality to Sheree Hollinger, the swim team’s captain and de facto guide through life. “She took it to a whole different level, being in charge,” Wren said. “All these characters are based on somewhat stereotypical people, but they all go beyond that. They color it so beautifully.”
Initially, The Sweet Delilah Swim Club was set to stage in the company’s usual Majestic space, the Lab Theatre, while following the state’s mandates as the coronavirus wound down and restrictions were carefully loosened. Then, in November, Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced an impending “freeze” to shutter everything again. By that point Wren had fortuitously moved Sweet Delilah to Zoom and had begun adapting it for that presentation.
As is custom by this point, the play was recorded for broadcast via Zoom, technical embellishments added to enhance the experience. Interstitials separate segments, offering perspective on incoming eras with such elements as the price of goods and major news events. Digitally inserted backdrops provide a sense of setting: in this case, the environs of a North Carolina beach cottage. There’s also a storm with the usual effects. All courtesy of video production technician Chad Howard and volunteer coordinator Amanda Vander Hyde. “I praise Chad and Amanda for all the technical work they do to enhance what my actresses are doing,” Wren said.
Performers faced the challenge of establishing a decades-long "kinship” while not being able to occupy the same airspace by keeping in touch as their characters. “They got that camaraderie without being in each other’s presence,” she said. “Usually, when you’re working in a show, you’re getting the vibe off your fellow actors. They did all of that electronically. They raised the level. Every time they came back, I would give them notes, but I always saw them thinking. I always saw them coming back with a whole different essence. They took it to heart as much as I did. That gave it an extra punch. It seemed like these women had been together for years.”
That relationship, of course, is essential to the play’s success. Separated by pandemic or not, the Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company provides the perfect venue to make Sweet Delilah work, centering as it does on character over spectacle. Wren hopes audiences can apply its themes to their own lives and the “teams” of companion personalities that make existence worthwhile.
“I think this applies to any friendship over a lifetime, men or women,” she said. “These women have a common bond because they were on a swim team in college, where they learned to work as a team. They each have a spark within them, a spark that someone else in the group may not have. What sparks any kind of friendship that makes it last longer than an acquaintance? They went through a lot together. Sometimes they don’t see each other for a year. Yet it’s that unknown quality that makes these connections whole."
If there’s a bright spot in pandemic-era entertainments