The Savannah Sipping Society at Sugden Theater is a southern-style, midlife crisis comedy.
On stage in the Sugden Theatre through February 6th is The Naples Players’ production of The Savannah Sipping Society. From the same writers who brought you The Hallelujah Girls, The Red Velvet Cake War, Always a Bridesmaid and Farce of Nature, Savannah Sipping Society is the perfect prescription to get you out of your COVID doldrums.
In the words of Director Betty Nordstrom (Agnes of God, Over the River and Through the Woods), Savannah Sipping Society is a rich comedy about four women who are looking to energize the second half of their lives after suffering losses.
“One got divorced because her husband left her for another woman. One has lost her job. Another is losing her sister to Alzheimer’s disease and the fourth is suddenly widowed. They’re all looking for that support group to boost them to take chances and another stab at life,” said Nordstrom.
Except they don’t realize that when they first meet. Like the rest of us, they sense that they need something, but they have no idea what that might be.
That begins to change when the widow, Dot Haigler, and divorcee, Marlafaye Moseley, meet each other and unemployed Randa Covington after the three drop out of a hot yoga class. They click from the start and, before departing, agree to meet for cocktails later that evening on Randa’s front porch.
Dot invites her cosmetologist, Jinx Jenkins, to come too, but little does she know that Jinx and Randa have previously met — and not in a good way.
Since it would be an egregious breach of Southern etiquette to come empty handed, Jinx stops at the grocery, where she picks up a big slab of brie and seven tangerines.
“When I got in the five-items-or-less-line, the most pretentious, uptight gal I’ve met in years threw up a Broadway fit and went ballistic,” Jinx tells Dot and Marlafaye as she takes a seat on the verandah. “What type of person is so tightly wound she’d even care about that.”
Just then, her tightly-wound host returns with a plate of hot hors d’oeuvres.
“You’re the nice one Dot’s been telling us about?” Randa exclaims. “There must be a mistake.”
“The mistake was me getting in the five nut jobs or less line,” Jinx shoots back, as Randa waves a menacing cheese stick at her uninvited, most unwelcome guest.
But never underestimate the power of cheese to soothe hard feelings — and it’s hard to stay mad at someone who can make chicken fried mozzarella sticks as good as Randa’s — even without chipotle tabasco dipping sauce.
As the four women get to know one another, it becomes apparent that each of them is desperate to shake up their lives.
Most groups of close-knit friends have a catalyst who’s always pushing the group to try new things, their motto being “get up, dress up and show up.” Noting that cosmetologists are actually life coaches at heart, Jinx offers to fill that need. And soon she is leading the group on a life makeover campaign that includes taking a haunted cemetery tour, going in costume to a medieval fair and finding dates for Valentine’s Day.
The purpose of each exercise is to force everyone out of their comfort zone; to embrace spontaneity.
“The last time I did anything spontaneous was on my tenth anniversary,” deflects Marlafaye. “Weylan, so romantic, he spared no expense. He turned to me and said, ‘Marlafaye, let’s make love with the lights on’ and I said, ‘Oh Weylan, shut the damn car door.”
In addition to a catalyst, every group of friends needs a comic, someone who can lighten the mood when things get heated or someone is feeling down. In this foursome, that person in Marlafaye, played to perfection by Ruth Johnson (The Wedding Singer).
“Marlafaye handles a lot of situations with comedy. She supports and acknowledges what the other three are going through, but she does it in a more comical way to lighten up some of the things that women of a certain age go through. She is there to be helpful but with a smile, so it’s not such a downer,” said Johnson.
Kristin Cassidy (Mamma Mia!, She Kills Monsters) plays the part of Randa Covington and beautifully captures her character’s blend of dry wit, sarcasm and the skepticism of a jaded accountant.
Peggy Monson (Calendar Girls) tackles the role of widow Dot Haigler, who refuses to admit to herself and the girls that she’s losing her vision.
And Gerrie Benzing (Calendar Girls, Circle Mirror Transformation, On Golden Pond) discharges the role of life coach wannabe Jinx Jenkins with panache and self-effacing Southern charm.
There are two other important characters in Savannah Sipping Society. The first is the Steamboat Gothic Gingerbread House that Scenic Designer Sadie Ward provides as backdrop for the girls’ non-stop banter and hijinks. It’s impressive, inviting and welcoming. Even before the house lights go down and the curtain goes up, the audience knows viscerally that this is exactly the type of place they’d like to spend the next two and a half hours.
And then there are the costumes!
From dresses and heels to Jinx’s steeple and Dot’s horned headdresses, Costume Designer Mollie LaTorre evokes a fashion runway sensibility with each new scene. To accommodate the associated frenetic costume changes, playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten cleverly structure a series of scene-ending monologues that provide a diversion — while furnishing the audience with important introspective revelations about each of the girls.
In spite of Jinx’s out-of-the-box adventures and the script’s crackling comedic repartee, Cassidy, Johnson, Monson, and Benzing come across as real women facing a variety of bona fide mid-life crises. And with the support and encouragement of her newfound friends, each finds a way to overcome the obstacles that life has through in her path.
In Ruth Johnson’s estimation, that makes Randa, Dot, Jinx and Marlafaye relatable.
“Everyone will enjoy the comedy, but women of a certain age know those four characters. It’s the perfect girls’ night out,” said Johnson.
Director Betty Nordstrom agrees.
“They will have all been through that at some point in their life. Regardless of what the situation is, there’s common ground between those four women on stage and every woman in the audience," said Nordstrom. "These four actresses are highly intelligent and very good at what they do, so it will certainly be a night for you to remember.”
To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.
This Spotlight on the Arts feature is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.