The Scarlett O'Hara Complex
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
November 30, 2006
The Scarlett O'Hara Complex brings small town Southern living to the New York stage. Tight relationships among women friends, imaginations that are in overdrive, and men without morals might not distinguish the South from the North, but the amount of time gossiping and speculating about a potential murder does. Apparently, women of means in North Carolina do not work and they do not divorce. Nor do they volunteer at charities or develop interests in or outside the home, which accounts for the time available—in this case, two acts plus an intermission—to commune over what their friend Jenny might do after finding her husband Earl in the sack with another woman.
Don't get me wrong. The theme of betrayal is a strong one. And this play provides a loose framework with a strong sense of location (with references to Gone with the Wind) on which to build a believable drama or a light comedy. But, playwright Karen Wheeling-Reynolds does neither. Instead, she chooses to tell the audience what's going on rather than deliver dramatic moments and to substitute throw-away lines designed for a laugh among friends at the expense of building strong characters. Consequently, I did not care whether Jenny killed Earl or not, because I did not care about Jenny, Earl, or most of her friends. An exception goes to Wheeling-Reynolds, who plays the highly imaginative, seriously determined Libby. Wheeling-Reynolds, whose play draws on actual murders—including her father's—knows her character intimately and delivers her lines with clipped conviction. Libby is the character who is most believable. Second is Ethel Mae, Earl's feisty, boozehound of a mother. In this role, Sarah Smith's grounded performance gives relief from some of the histrionics elsewhere on stage. She could be stronger if not for clichés such as, "All they're looking for is a nurse and a purse."
The role of Jenny, played by Nicole Vidrine, enters well after the women have laid out the score for the audience. Despite the fact that she is the protagonist, she is denied the right to react to her humiliating situation and the town gossip that ensues. The lines simply aren't there. How can I empathize? Conversely, her two friends Mary Frances and Cat, played by Dianne Steele and Kathy McGrady Moffett respectively, talk for windy paragraphs at a time. When four close friends are in the same room, who would allow that?
Then there is Harold Bass's Earl, an unlikely ladies' man. He is portrayed as nearly slow-witted and a mama's boy. Nevertheless, it is Bass who exhibits one of the strongest moments in the play when he hauls off and smacks Mary Frances in the rear, an action of pure sexual exuberance delivered with unusual strength. Mary Frances, in turn, reacts on cue and with appropriate zeal. This is drama! But it doesn't last.
The second act slips into a dinner party. It is not meant to be awkward, but how could it be otherwise when the guests do not fit at the table? A small second table is set off to the side—sort of a kiddie table for the less important. One person speaks at a time, sometimes at great length. There are long pauses, and the guests talk about Earl as if he is not there. But he is. An absence of lines doesn't mean a character can't react. It appears as if the characters aren't listening to one another. Director David Reynolds could have weighed in with more precision, even busying Earl as bartender for his mother.
The set, designed by William Davidson, shows an adequate, warm kitchen, but not one I would attribute to someone of means. Several scenes take place off the stage, because they were outside the house, and a couple took place on the stage but not in the kitchen, although the kitchen was in the background with less light. Lighting was designed by David Reynolds, and costumes, by Rita Smith and Calico Annie of Texas, are at their best on Wheeling-Reynolds.
For all the shortcomings, this play is not dead in the water. It is simply not finished. Edit clichés and delete repetition. Build up the roles and give them the lines they deserve. The humor is hidden in the characters.