In most theaters, the audience is warned by an announcement or a dimming of the lights when the show is about to start. Greensboro's Barn Dinner Theater takes a more down home approach--when you see the sneeze guards being unhooked from the bottom of the stage, you know it's show time.
At the Barn, the play's the thing, but first you eat. While dinner is being served, the stage, which operates on a lift (like down at the service station), is in it's up position so that patrons can partake of the all-you-can-eat buffet without having to crawl underneath the stage. The actual start of the show is preceded by a small army of waiters and bus boys swarming the buffet line, wheeling the tables out, snatching down the sneeze guards and hustling them out through a rear door. The lights dim, a couple of waitress-cum-mechanics stand by each end of the stage and throw the lift switches, the stage descends, and the show begins.
Honky-Tonk Angels is the after-dinner fare. The story of three young women making their way to Nashville to make it in the country music business is underscored by linking 32 classic country and contemporary songs, including hits by Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Pam Tillis and, of course, Kitty Wells, who originally recorded "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."
The play is an offshoot of playwright Ted Swindley's hit musical Always Patsy Cline. While directing a play in Houston, the South Carolina native was bugged by a cast member wanting to sing Patsy Cline songs. Her constant hounding finally prodded Swindley to listen to Cline's music and he became an instant fan. Looking for a local tie-in, he discovered that Cline had appeared in Houston in '61 and befriended a fan, Louise Seger, with whom she corresponded for the rest of her life. He discovered the first letter Cline wrote to Seger.
"It wasn't profound, but it was very warm and very human," Swindley says, "Patsy talking to her friend about her life and career. And on the basis of that one instance, I crafted this play, thinking of course it would do well in Houston, and that would be that. It's become quite a phenomenon. I've done it all over the country, in Australia and in England. It's been a huge, huge success, much to my surprise."
Swindley says that with the success of Always, people told him he should write a sequel. "And I said, 'I can't write a sequel. Patsy died. It's really hard to write a sequel with the main character dead.'" Instead, Swindley moved to Nashville for six years and did research. "I would drive by the Greyhound Bus Station and see people getting off the bus with their guitar cases in hand," Swindley remembers. "Sometimes you'd see single women with their children getting off the bus. I would meet people who were there basically trying to make it as country stars. That dream is still very much alive; they still try to make their way to Nashville to make it in the business. So the desire to put together the woman's voice in country music and my observations of the scene in Nashville led me to writing Honky-Tonk Angels."
The characters are rather broadly drawn. Angela, has a no good husband named Bubba, Sue Ellen is reminiscent of the Dolly Parton character from 9 to 5 and Darlene has a no-good, drunken, white-trash daddy straight out of Deliverance. When asked if he's had any criticism for his depiction of Southern womanhood Swindley says, "It's hard to speak to that without seeing the particular production that you saw. I directed some productions of it, and I've seen several productions and they vary. Overall it's a broad stroke, but I also think the presentation of it can be subtle or it can be broad and I guess that depends on the style and the way it's done."
Actress Lisa Dames Hazlett, who has been Patsy in the local production of Always and portrays Sue Ellen in this version of the play, says that the script and the costume plot and even the promotional videos that were sent when first staging the play "used the stereotypes--the characters all had the big wigs on. And our director said and we all agreed that it worked better if you let us just be people. The stereotypes were gonna come through in the dialogue, but there was no need to perpetuate the stereotype by putting the big hair on us and making us act like cartoons."
Another problem inherent in the production is the breaking of the imaginary fourth wall that separates the audience from the actors. In this production, the actors interact with the audience throughout the play. The evening's victims are picked out before the show by the emcee, who during his warm-up asks for the couple with the longest anniversary, then asks for the secret of their success, makes note of the ones with the funniest answers or the smartest mouths--and then points them out to the actors, who pick on them throughout the show.
Playing Sue Ellen, Lisa Dames Hazlett has had trouble with some over eager anniversarians who did not want to relinquish her after dancing with her. "Last Sunday, this 80-year-old gentlemen held on to me for dear life," she laughs. "He had his finger looped through my buttonhole. Earlier, they had been the longest anniversary, and when they were asked 'what's the secret of a long marriage,' his wife said 'no guns in the house.' So when I got him back to his seat I leaned over to his wife and said, 'You might wanna start thinking about that gun.' "
Dames Hazlett says she and her fellow actors have so far been able to diffuse the situations with humor. "During Always, we did have a very drunk man who fell asleep during the show and slept on his table for the show. During the bows, I thanked the majority of the audience for remaining awake during the performance. That's probably the worst thing that's ever happened."
Swindley's looking to stir up more trouble with a sequel he's hoping to do, Honky-Tonk Angels Final Chapter, Bubba's Revenge, "in which we'll have the menfolk in that particular installment." But for now, he's content to let his honky-tonk angels run around singing and raising hell in small theaters around the country. "I don't really see it as a Broadway show," says the playwright. "Right now it's having a real healthy life in regional theaters, so we'll see what happens." And as for the big screen, Swindley is open to offers. "That's an interesting idea. I've never really thought about it in terms of a film, but it's certainly encouraging to see the musical form coming back with things like Moulin Rouge and Chicago. I'd love to see that happen. I think it'd work and be an interesting production. So if you know any producers out there looking for a screenplay, let me know."
For information and reservations: Barn Dinner Theater, Greensboro, (800) 668-1764. Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. Through June 8. Dinner served from 6-7:30 p.m.