TheatreNOW dinner theatre knows not to mess with success. The last two years they have opened their summer season with adaptations of Celia Rivenbark’s books with huge success. Celia fans will rejoice to hear she is back and better than ever in “Celia: Aging Like a Fine Box of Wine.” Written by Celia herself (the last two shows were adapted from her books by TheatreNOW artistic director Zach Hanner) and directed by Beth Swindell, the evening is at turns side-splitting funny and poignant.
Each act is introduced by a short video monologue delivered by Celia. Though she addresses in a very self-deprecating way what she considers to be her failings as a performer, all the warmth and humor one has come to expect from her flows through the screen to the audience. The divine Erin Hunter brings Celia to life onstage. Part narrator, part player in the stories, she passes in and out of the two panes seamlessly. Jim Bowling is tasked with bringing the most hen-pecked (and loved) man in the world to life, everyone’s favorite: Duh Hubby. Bowling captures the dry wit of the straight man to Celia’s jokes and has a great time tossing the ball back to Hunter. Together they make a really adorable and loving couple who share life’s ups and downs with grace and a good laugh.
Take, for example, when The Princess (Kendall Walker) attempts to explain to her parents, who bankroll a rather luxurious life for her, that her generation isn’t attached to material objects but rather “experiences.” If they were serious about downsizing to only the bare essentials for happiness, they would donate their clothes and possessions to charity. Ah. Mom and Dad finally end this absurdity with mutual agreement that a Molly Hatchett album is a source of great joy and therefore essential. What can a teenager do in the face of such united blindness? Walker captures the Princess’ sweetness, along with a young adult’s angst in teetering on the brink of adulthood, about to spread her wings. It is a trying time for any family, but this one seems to reassure there will be some growing pains, but everyone will come through all right in the end.
On the other side of the sandwich generation that Celia embodies sits her mother and her Aunt Verlie (Penelope Grover). Caring for aging relatives is far from easy for anybody, but I have to admit Hunter’s Celia seems to have a better sense of humor about it than I ever did. Grover’s Aunt Verlie is mostly checked out, but (like my father) has become a billboard reader. Every. Single. One. At least it is a form of communication and it isn’t critical—unlike, say, Pauline (Logan Tart) and her mother (Elizabeth Michaels).
Celia has captured possibly the definitive embarrassing lunch date with an aging parent who doesn’t like any gift you give them. Tart’s Pauline tries to get her parents a cellphone, which of course they can’t use, won’t use and lose. As Michaels explains, it can’t possibly save money if it has to be plugged in to charge and use up electricity all the time.
Then there is the problem with the “netflicker” she gave them—it won’t work so they don’t watch it. Of course, all of this will be solved now that Donald will “Make America Great Again”! As I said, it is the lunch date from hell and there is no way to get out of it or make it better.
Tart slowly sinks lower and lower in her chair until she is almost hiding under the table. But Michaels, desperate to reach her daughter, gets louder and louder to make sure she is heard. When Pauline finally gives up and decides to leave, her mother tries to take the sugar packets, napkins and candle from the table. I have been Tart’s character, it is just terrifying to think Michaels depicts my future.
A lot of Celia’s writing involves food: family life, Southern heritage, the trials and tribulations of the modern kitchen. Somehow it seems natural to combine an evening of Celia with dinner. TheatreNOW’s Chef Denise Gordon has prepared a repast that is so mouth-watering it almost defies description. It did motivate me to try to stab a waiter with a fork who attempted to take my still half-full plate away. Chef Gordon serves incredible flat biscuits that are flaky, buttery and addictive. Seriously, one should not be left alone and unattended with a basket of them. For this evening, the biscuits appear with salad: greens topped with tangy pickled zucchini, melons and grapes. The biscuits are helpful for sopping up all the poppy citrus salad dressing (since I can’t necessarily lick my plate in public).
But the real thrill was waiting for the entrée. A disk slightly larger than a CD appeared on my plate with a serving of three-potato salad. Where to begin? The disc contained a fried pimento cheese patty—yes you read that correctly, grilled veggies (including eggplant—yeah!), all inside a “bun” made from cauliflower. It is nothing short of incredible. The steamed greens on the side balance out the richness of the meal. Gordon has outdone herself again.
Really, Celia is a local treasure. TheatreNOW’s celebration of the syndicated columnist and author of seven books is really quite a gift to the community. It’s a wonderful evening to help renew basic faith in humanity and remind us to find a way to laugh. Even in the most trying family moments, this is the answer to our prayers.