When it comes to proving her worth, Carnelle Scott thinks winning Brookhaven, Mississippi’s annual Fourth of July beauty pageant, the Miss Firecracker Contest, will be her ticket to greater self-confidence. Working against her questionable, permiscuous reputation, which crowned her “Miss Hot Tamale” by Brookhaven’s citizens, Carnelle’s practicing her “tap” dance routine to The Star-Spangled Banner as the show opens in her somewhat bleak and dreary home. Reared by her Aunt Ronnelle—who passed away from cancer after receiving a pituatary gland transplant from a monkey—Carnelle is in the midst of having her costume for the pageant made by Popeye Jackson, Brookhaven’s newest seamstress. In barges Carnelle’s cousins, Elain and Delmount, who are undergoing their own mid-life crises to help get the over-the-top action going in this Beth Henley comedy.
“The Miss Firecracker Contest” certainly has all the standards seemingly rampant in Southern comedies: long, drawn-out enunciation of language, colloquialisms galore, caricature-like roles, excessive arguments, and massive amounst of quirk. The latter works in its favor, starting with Popeye Jackson, played by Susan Auten.
Auten is such an amazing talent. She’s traversed the land of scripts locally, from doing Shakespeare to conceiving “Baring It,” an original pool of one-acts that paid homage to the creative struggles of local artists. As an actress, Auten understands nuance and subtlety—which makes her a standout in Southern comedy. It’s one of my biggest quips with any Southern medium, whether literature, theatre or film: Everything’s loud and in-your-face—from dialogue to clothes to decor and beyond. Though Auten certainly opens the show with the most interesting of dresses (I actually loved it), she plays Popeye with a heavy dose of reserve. She has more of the Type B personality that sits on the sidelines and takes in her surroundings with careful aplomb. I love her sense of peculiarity in this role; she masters awkward social situations and interactions that feel authentic.
Auten’s Popeye is the perfect foil to Jaimie Harwood’s Carnelle Scott. Harwood has a zippy pep in her step and copious amounts of zingy energy. Her chemistry with Auten gels without hesitation. In some ways Harwood and Auten seem to be flip sides of the coin of another well-known character from the South: Daryl Hannah’s Annelle from “Steel Magnolias.” Auten makes a perfect shy and reserved Annelle, while Harwood plays a more flamboyant, wild child of the same character. To be fair, Henley wrote “The Miss Firecracker Contest” way before “Steel Magnolias.” Yet, these two roles could intertwine easily and become one from the 1989 film.
Auten and Harwood carry the show. Each time they’re onstage together and separately, they’re the ones who manage to naturally draw most interest—at least when they’re not fighting against a very loud and gregarious Delmount Williams, played by Eddie Waters. Delmount is a troubled character, who’s coming out of a mental institution where he was sent to serve time instead of jail. Waters’ portrayal of Delmount is all-consuming. He’s very loud—and I mean loud—aggressive and comes off as a bit evil. Most dialogue he “speaks” is actually a scream. I told my theatre companion at intermission that if the play gets wrapped up in roses instead of taking a sordid turn, I would be disappointed. Mainly, Waters’ maniacal approach to Delmount felt fundamentally malevolent rather than merely sour and jaded from life’s misgivings. I would have liked Waters’ portrayal immensely had the show turned dark. But it didn’t, and in the second act, despite a tad more hell-raising, Delmount rises as a more at-ease guy. It’s so far-fetched from the guy in Act I and therefore didn’t seem believable.
Amber Sheets makes a perfect Elain Rutledge—haughty but still tied to her roots in some form or fashion, even if it is from the shallowness of vanity. Sheets has all the makings of the Southern belle who had the most friends, the most suitors and the most attention in youth, and goes on to marry the man with the most money in order to live a life beyond the small-town ass-backwardness of Brookhaven. Her range of voice immediately goes up a few octaves upon any incredulous remark against her, as if saying, “What? Me?!” Yet, still, there’s something I like about her. No matter her ostentatious shortcomings, she still loves her family, even if to serve her ego in some twisted way.
The set design of “The Miss Firecracker Contest” really astounds in Act II. In fact, it may be one of the best transformations I’ve seen Big Dawg ever take on in their small Cape Fear Playhouse theatre. The home of Carnelle turns into the outdoor Fourth of July Festival—a behind-the-scenes look, complete with circus-like awnings and a dressing room. The only downfall of this act is not seeing Carnelle actually perform in the beauty pageant. So much of Act I focuses on her desire to win, to prove to others that she’s changed and is a good person—because, clearly, winning a beauty contest does this for women. We as the audience need to see the culmination of this. We want to see everything she’s worked for either go off swimmingly or go down in flames.
A fundamental problem I have with this play, which is no fault of our local actors, director or theatre company, is the writing of this show. So much dialogue is redundant; we hear so many times that Aunt Ronelle was mean, and Carnelle was the town tramp, and Elain was the town golden child, and Delmount was the womanizing hellion, that it becomes rather boring. My main quip: Why are we still watching scripts about women who have to be validated as pretty to find worth in their actions—good and bad and all things between? As funny as it is to watch Southerners act like buffoons in so many scenarios—and, face it, a beauty contest may be one of the best situations—I can’t say “The Miss Firecracker Contest” does it for me. Now, if Beth Henley wants to write an entire play based on Popeye Jackson—well, I am much more inclined to watch about her life. That’s where the story’s depth is—at least in my opinion.