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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Southern Charm

The Dixie Swim Club
stars
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
Aug. 9th-12th, 16th-19th
Shows at 8 p.m. or Sun., 3 p.m.
$18-$20 or $15 on Thursdays only
www.bigdawgproductions.org

GAL PALS: (l. to r.) Tamara Mercer, Brandy Jones, Pam Smith, Holli Saperstein and Monnie Whitson perform hilariously in ‘The Dixie Swim Club.’ Photo by Michele Seidman

Big Dawg Productions presents a touching homage to the power of female friendship in their latest (practically sold-out) run of “The Dixie Swim Club.” Written by the comedic team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten (collectively known as JonesHopeWooten), “Dixie” isn’t unlike the stage show for Big Dawg’s hit of 2011, “The Hallelujah Girls,” or “Steel Magnolias” for that matter—both of which take place entirely in a beauty salon. As well, “Dixie” utilizes only one set: a beachfront house rented for one weekend every summer on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Here, a group of gals, who once competed on the Pemberton College Women’s swim team, meet. Sheree (Monnie Whitson) was the captain of the collegiate team, and now dedicates her life to organization and healthy living through exercise and organic food. Steady, stable and ultimately dependable, her perfect foil is Lexi (Pam Smith), who arrives for a weekend at the beach in high heals, a micro mini-dress and jewels. Dinah (Holli Saperstein) and Vernadette (Tamara Mercer) join them. Dinah, an ambitious lawyer on the fast track in Atlanta, is a rising star behind the wheel of a Mercedes. In contrast, Vernadette lives out a parody of poverty in Spivey’s Corner. They get caught up in Lexi’s latest divorce, when their other swim mate, Jeri Neal (Brandy Jones)—who became a nun right after college graduation—arrives with big news.

All five performers are believable in their roles. Saperstein’s Dinah as the strong, driven woman—wearing a mask of lead to hide the teddy-bear do-gooder underneath—is played to a “T.” Modern-day society will certainly know her—several of her, in fact. Feeling that she always must work harder to prove herself because she’s a woman, she can’t be good; she must be the best. Her body language and mannerisms are carefully cultivated to “be taken seriously,” not mistaken for a bit of fluff or as a sex object.

By contrast, Lexi exudes sexuality from every movement. And did I mention there are no men onstage? She is a hard character to like in the beginning, but Pam Smith really revels in her growth, making the final scene believable and even likable.

I have known several nuns in real life and outside of the convent setting, and if one word could be used to describe them, it would be: surprising. Brandy Jones brings such a quality to Jeri Neal tenfold. Written in many ways to resemble Rose from “The Golden Girls” (for which Wooten helped pen and won a Writers Guild of America award), with her platitudes and country-girl, simple wisdom, Jones imbues her with a quiet strength and resourcefulness that keeps her from becoming a victim of her own naiveté.

Whitson, however, plays Sheree like a rock, which is of course what she is written to be. From packing everyone’s emergency evacuation kits, to acting as executor of a friend’s estate, she is that indispensable person of complete preparedness and unconditional love, just like any mother (not to say her version of Sheree doesn’t have a wild streak!).

Tamara Mercer outdoes herself as Vernadette. Incredibly kind and thoughtful, she also shows acerbic wit—like a cross between Dorothy Zbornak from “The Golden Girls” and Ouiser in “Steel Magnolias.” The only difference is that rather than attacking others, she’s self-deprecating. Her comedic timing fleshes out the show, and her biscuit monologue is incredible to behold. Where her real acting skill shines is in the final scene, when the characters are in their 70s. Mercer plays an aged person remarkably: the paced walk that forces everyone to slow down around them, her fidgety fingers on her walker. All encapsulates superb attention to detail, which makes the performance real for anyone who has spent time with the elderly.

The writing is what one would expect from a team of Southern pen(wo)men. There are some intensely sappy moments but also fall-out-of-your-seat-laughing moments. At one point, Vernadette, whose husband could at best be described as abusive, laments, “Husbands, they say they’d die for you—but they never do!” Yes, there are quite a few one-liners in the show (“Did you just see a clown on crutches hobble toward the bathroom?”). Director Michele Seidman assembles a fun-loving group to put on an evening of heartfelt entertainment. She and set desigenr Audrey McCrummen create a veritable playground for these ladies to show off and let loose. The cutaway motif of the picture window seems particularly effective for the staging.

In contrast to the main stage at Thalian Hall, Cape Fear Playhouse is an incredibly intimate space. Though the sets and costumes for “The Dixie Swim Club” are very good—with some especially providing side-splitting moments of visual comedy—shows here have to be about more than high-concept production values. The scripts and the performances must carry the evening. Based on the sell-out shows Big Dawg has encountered over the last year, it looks like they have it figured out nicely.

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