Photos by Chip Lowe
La Plata, MD – The hilarious and touching comedy-drama, The Dixie Swim Club, produced by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc., opened at the Port Tobacco Playhouse (PTP) Theater in La Plata Friday, Jan. 16 and runs through February 1.
The story revolves around five southern women whose friendships began years ago on their college swim team. They reunite for one weekend each August at the same beach cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The play focuses on four of those weekends and tracks the characters over a long span of time (33 years), showcasing each in contrast as to how they appeared in the previous scene (in the style of Same Time, Next Year).
The Dixie Swim Club is written by American playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten known as Jones Hope Wooten.
The PTP production is directed by Joselle Gilpin, who has assembled a talented cast, and is produced by Melissa Ball. The director has dedicated the show to her best friend, Evelyn Gerofsky Gross.
The single-set play (a comfy living room of an Outer Banks beach cottage; the backdrop lighthouse is an especially nice touch) introduces us to Sheree (Donna Wolfram, last seen onstage at PTP as Mrs. Cratchit in A Christmas Carol in 1997), the former Swim Team Captain and now the group’s leader and organizer par excellence; Dinah (Allison Turkel), the overachieving career dynamo lawyer; Lexie (Joanne Fuesel), who perennially pursues youth and beauty while traipsing through one marriage after another; Vernadette (Lynne O’Meara), who embraces the chaos of her life through self-deprecating humor; and Jeri Neal/Sister Mary Esther (Mary Lowe) who comes late to motherhood.
The opening soundtrack sets the mood at the Outer Banks cottage with soothing sounds of surf and seagulls. It segues into the song “Easier Said Than Done” as the lights come up on Sheree, (known for her florals and table settings), joyfully dancing alone in the kitchen. She is joined by the glamorous Lexie, who’s just had her eyes “done.” They engage in cheerful girlfriend chitchat and are joined by Dinah, who presents a striking figure dressed in her smart red and black outfit.
They relax and enjoy snacks and martinis while recapping the “weekend rules”—no kids, no men, no work—as Vernadette enters, sporting a cast on her left arm. The foursome continues chatting as Lexie reveals that she’s getting a divorce—her third—and is already involved in yet another romantic entanglement. Finally Sister Mary Esther, aka Jerri Neal, arrives with an important—and obvious—announcement concerning her life as a nun. This production marks Mrs. Lowe’s first time in front of the curtain since her high school days.
Act I, Scene 1 has introduced us to the chums 22 years after their 1982 college graduation. The sparkling conversation is matched only by the sparkling personalities of the actresses. The audience will have fallen in love with each of them when the time arrives for the play’s closing moments, guaranteed.
We meet the friends again in Scene 2, which takes place five years later, in 1987. The friends are now 39. Their witty repartee is as sharp as ever. As Dinah, Allison Turkel exhibits self-assurance in her role, and Donna Wolfram as Sheree continues to “run the show’ with her schedule of events and ongoing organizing of everyone and everything. In this scene, Lynne O’Meara—appearing for her eighth time onstage at PTP as Vernadette—arrives on crutches while dressed as a clown and picks up right where we left her in Scene 1 with her spot-on delivery of one-liners. Her explanation of the crutches and the clown suit reveals more of her never-ending family dramas.
Mary Lowe as Jeri “models” her potential interviewing outfits. Her sweet, sincere interpretation of this role creates a truly loveable character. And Joanne Fuesel’s flirtatious Lexie—Ms. Feusel looks stunning in every costume change—is experiencing yet another chance at love. Ms. Feusel was last seen at PTP as a member of The Music Man ensemble.
A squabble ensues and seems to threaten the 27-year friendship. We learn, among many, many other things, that Sheree is freaked-out by her impending grandmotherhood. Jeri attempts to rally everyone to unite. This scene ends as they all rush offstage for a group swim.
We meet the group again in Act II, Scene 1, five years later, in 1992. The cast continues to exhibit its outstanding camaraderie as the audience observes these women age ever-so-gradually through both their physical and emotional demeanors. Characterization is well-defined and unique to each actress. The pace is excellent throughout, and the plot unfolds briskly. But what would the Outer Banks be without a looming hurricane?? Will the friends need to evacuate the cottage?
At this year’s reunion, Vernadette is wearing a neck brace. She bakes biscuits for comfort food while they wait out the storm. Lexie – stunning once again, this time in green – is the beneficiary of even more plastic surgery. But her new relationship—with a plastic surgeon, no less—is on the rocks and she admits that she’s not young anymore at 54. Jeri excitedly talks about her trip to Italy.
Sheree happily confesses that she’s enjoying being a grandmother and Vernadette chimes in that she’s also going to be a grandmother, although not under the best of circumstances. They all drink a toast to their beloved college swim coach and repeat their motto: “The faster we swim, the sooner we win!”
A timely phone call notifies them that they must now evacuate. But that does not present a problem as Sheree has already, thankfully, gotten everyone packed and ready. Lexie and Dinah stay behind for a few more moments. Lexie shares her feelings about her upcoming medical crisis and Dinah confides a secret about her career, giving Ms. Turkel, making her PTP debut here, an opportunity to display her strong acting skills.
Act II, Scene 2, the last scene, finds the friends at the cottage once more. They are now 77 years old. All of the actresses are plausible as aging friends. Miss Wolfram is quite effective as Donna who is recovering from hip surgery. Notice how Lexie’s shoulders are just ever-so-slightly slumped, hinting at her age. And Lynne O’Meara is almost unrecognizable as the declining Vernadette. This will be their last get-together at the cottage as it is now going to be torn down. However new opportunities await the group in future summers. The ending, their last task at this cottage, will tug at every audience member’s heartstrings.
During the Jan. 12 Press Night, the monitors designated to run the videos suggesting the passage of time were not operating; the show was not marred by the omission. Occasionally, brief snippets of dialogue were lost when faces were turned sideways instead of projecting directly out to the audience but for the most part, the actress’ diction was clear and individual vocal quality employed for the delicate southern accents resulted in pleasantly mellifluous tones.
The skilled members of The Dixie Swim Club’s Production Staff are: stage manager R. Austin Gore, set designer and master carpenter Richard Gilpin, set construction crew Zack Ball, Rance Culver, John Kirby, Michael Margolis, Chris Magee, John Merritt, Jeff Merritt, Brian Merritt, Chad Mildenstein, Ryan Mudd and Dave Standish; set painter April Weimer, set decorator Christine Shubert, lighting designer Tommy Scott, sound designer Brian Donohue, sound design board operator Neil Twohig, technical sound Director Cecil Cease, video designer Greg Rumpf, properties manager Mindy Gilpin, costume designer Quentin Nash Sagers, costume assistant Lisa Magee, hair and makeup designer Sarah Sandy; hair, makeup and costume crew Annabelle Lowe and Kate O’Meara; house manager Melissa Gilpin Ball, program layout designer Liz Mildenstein; headshots photographer Greg Rumpf, poster and program cover designer Donald Jay Ely.
The Dixie Swim Club will run Jan. 16 through Feb. 1 with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets for adults are $17; senior/student/military tickets are $14. For more information, you may call the Port Tobacco Players Box Office at 301-932-6819, or contact www.ptplayers.com.