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SOUTHERN ECCENTRICITY: Beth Henley’s ‘Miss Firecracker Contest’ opens at Cape Fear Playhouse

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Though “The Miss Firecracker Contest” may come across as light and fluffy, it’s far from one-dimensional, according to the cast. Laughter drives it with charisma, while perspective and sympathy drive it home.

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Amping up the drama at Cape Fear Playhouse this week—and running for two weekends thereafter—is writer Beth Henley’s Southern dramedy, “The Miss Firecracker Contest.” Most know Henley from her award-winning work, “Crimes of the Heart,” which scored a Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle award in 1981 (it was nominated for a Tony and again for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay as well). Henley brings the South to the forefront again in “Firecracker” with a dysfunctional family who’s suffering through their own demons, including the beloved protagonist Carnelle.

firecrackerSet in Brookhaven, Mississippi, “The Miss Firecracker Contest” follows 24-year-old Carnelle as she tries to polish her tarnished reputation from promiscuous “Miss Hot Tamale” into the town’s honored beauty pageant winner, “Miss Firecracker.” With the help of cousins Elain and Delmount, as well as numerous side characters, like Carnelle’s sickly beau, Mac Sam, and Delmount’s ex, Tessy, Henley tackles the inner makings of entertaining Southern Gothic literature. Drama and comedy ensue with plot points that involve a dead, loveless mother figure, a boring, dull marriage, a hopeless, if not floundering, romantic, and a gal trying to find the confidence to rise above life’s hard falls. Preposterous hyperbole showcases that truth is stranger than fiction with these characters; yet, it’s not farfetched for folks who understand the eccentricities of the South.

“I have always enjoyed Beth Henley’s work primarily because of its wide variety of wonderfully quirky characters and the loony situations they find themselves in,” director Anne Berkeley admits. “At first, these characters seem a bit too outlandish to be ‘real,’ but if you look more closely, you realize they reflect people we encounter everyday—including ourselves.”

A professor in the UNCW theatre department for 13 years, Berkeley is emersing herself more into community theatre. She was nominated by Wilmington Theatre Awards for Best Play and Best Director in 2014 for the UNCW production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia.” 

“‘The Miss Firecracker Contest’ is concerned with people finding inner resources to cope with cruel circumstances,” she tells. “[It] deals with how one defines identity without the nurture of loving parents.”

Henley’s work is an intriguing study, in that it shifts frequently in character, so actors are challenged. “Henley plays comic action against grim situations with characters who are irrepressibly alive,” Berkeley notes. “At times it is dramatically realistic; at other times, farcical.”

Twenty-three-year-old Eddie Waters (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “Hamlet,” “Spring Awakening”) is a recent grad of theatre performance and communication studies at UNCW, and will play Delmount. The character’s checkered past involves some questionable incidents, like the one with two ugly, virgin daughters and another that centers around a box of kittens.

“He has been released from a mental institution and arrives back in the town of Brookhaven in order to sell his deceased mother’s house and start a new life for himself,” Waters details.

Filled with negativity and apathy for the world, Delmount is the foil to his female relatives, Carnelle and Elain—each of whom prove to be happier, even if superficially. His constant confrontations with Elain drive many scenes.

“With Delmount, I’ve been given the chance to play a much more sallow, grounded character than I’m used to,” Waters says. “Typically characters I play are high-energy, loud and upbeat. While Delmount has moments like this, it really has been fun to challenge myself otherwise.”

Amber Sheets (“Son of Redhead,” “Hairspray”) plays debutante beauty queen Elain. Though she has a heart of gold for family, she also has a heart of gold-plated love for the finer things in life.  And while she can stay in a loveless marriage, she holds on to her past queen status, which causes some friction between her and Carnelle.

“Her one-liners are great,” Sheets details. “I think audiences will really get a kick out of the comedic timing of this play and the big personalities. There are a lot of very funny moments mixed with some drama and tension.”

Jaimie Harwood (“Dearly Departed,” “Brick”) will play Carnelle. Harwood calls her character a willful optimistic.   

“She always sees the best in other people, and now she’s attempting to see the best in herself,” the 25-year-old  says. “It’s a brave thing to do; she’s putting herself on the line in hopes of feeling more secure.”

Though the play may come across as light and fluffy, it’s far from one-dimensional, according to the cast. Laughter drives it with charisma, while perspective and sympathy drive it home.

“Ultimately, the play walks a perilous line between close observation and cartoon broadness,” Berkeley says. “The challenge is to intertwine the mix of comedy and pathos—the comic surface of the action with its undercurrent of human pain.”

The Miss Firecracker Contest
July 30-August 2, 6-9, 13-16, 8 p.m.;
Sundays, 3 p.m. • Tickets: $16-$22
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.

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