Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams
Through Sunday, August 13
Meredith College's Jones Studio Theatre, Raleigh
It was a split decision on a show that first got me into theater criticism, twenty-four years ago—a production so problematic, of a new script so promising, that I was convinced critics would focus on the former and disregard the latter. So I wrote a different opinion. Someone decided it was worth publishing. Things, as they say, progressed from there.
I’m experiencing a bit of déjà vu while considering Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams
, Maribeth McCarthy’s dramedy about the worst possible baby shower in the most Southern of church fellowship halls. With the playwright in the director’s chair for the premiere, this Women’s Theatre Festival production had casting problems and rough edges aplenty on opening night, to the point where it made me think McCarthy’s probably not the best interpreter of her own work.
But the conspicuous strengths of her script are nearly ready to be embraced by a host of small community theaters still dotting the Southland. With main characters like the titanic Mama Jubilee (a stellar Kelly Stansell) oozing carbolic Southern charm, McCarthy should expect royalty checks from a number of them.
Here's where I'm supposed to say something snarky about a work with little interest in the cutting edges of Annie Baker or Young Jean Lee.
Sorry. Those who think writing Southern farce is easy have never tried it. Since it is clear that McCarthy never looks down on her characters—the downfall of most who attempt this genre—you won't see me doing so.
The production had its pitfalls. As the hapless Nora, the northerner begging to be accepted as Mama Jubilee’s daughter-in-law, lead actor Chelsea Winstead kept blurting shrill, unintelligible lines during much of the first act. As Nora’s husband, an unconvincing Joey DeSena displayed little more emotional range than he did as the bland barkeep in Bruisers
, McCarthy’s offering in last summer’s festival.
The winsome Lauren Bamford fared far better as Samantha, Mama’s grown-up golden child, who slowly realizes how much a seemingly perfect life has cheated her. Understudy Hannah Marks gave an earthy realness to the pregnant Maggie. After bringing intelligence and wit to several local supporting roles in recent years, Liz Webb shone as the precocious, bratty Avery, and Tyler Graeper sparkled, even though he was unsubtly directed, as Aiden, her gay brother and nemesis.
McCarthy’s script could still use some fine-tuning. The backstories of several supporting characters need fleshing out. The trajectory of a second-act mood swing takes us from the farcical into the dark for too long without leaving enough moments to light the way. Desires are needlessly telegraphed on page and stage, and an ultimately anticlimactic series of fights to the finish between Jubilee and Anne (veteran Carla Reck) never seem to actually finish anything.
Still, the heart of this script is strong—stronger, unfortunately, than its first production. That’s the split decision on Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams