Who remembers Hurricane Florence, anyone? Clearly I’m joking—I mean, last year’s storm only was one of the most destructive Wilmington has seen in some time. As hurricane season 2019 approaches June 1, eight months outside of Florence brings with it hindsight—seeing the good with the bad … the glass half full … a silver lining … or break in the storm, if you will. And if anyone can find sunshine through the clouds of despair, it’s local humor columnist-turned-playwright Celia Rivenbark.
Wilmington’s own aficionado of all things Southern culture, or its lack thereof, has teamed up with Kevin Parker to bring to stage “This Hurricane Blows: A Cat 5 Comedy.” The play will ring true to all who have lived through those rising tides and Gale force winds in the South. Directed by Jim Bowling, the show features a sitcom-like pace and jokes that will have the winds of laughter blowing down the house, from a cat 1 (quite a few played-out jokes) all the way to a 5 (Southern wit at its finest).
TheatreNOW is hosting the zany comedy, which is like a mix of the Bundy family from “Married with Children” and the Clampett clan of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The plot drops them both in the eye of the storm. So when the ill-equipped New Jersey family, the D’Milos (Joe Renton and Lupin Byers), finds their home decimated by powerful winds, they are taken in to ride out the storm by their big-hearted Southern neighbors, the Holdens’ (Ron Hasson and Paula Davis). As the storm rages, tensions rise and the two completely opposite couples do their best to pass the time, stockpile food, and pray they don’t run out of booze. Bless their hearts.
The audience is seated front and center in the living room, as the Holdens check and double check their hurricane prep list. They have lanterns hanging from the walls and a flashlight in arms reach; these two have seen their fair share of storms.
The set is repurposed from TheatreNOW’s last production, but the company has really decked it out to embody the homes of the two contrasting families. Besides, the set Jacob Keohane has built is far too cool not to get full use out of it.
Opening like a storybook turning its pages, the homes swiftly transform from the Holdens’ redneck heaven to the heavily Italian domain of the D’Milos. Each reads as lived-in and feature different paint on the walls to help differentiate the two. The D’Milos feature posters of “Old Blue Eyes” to the Pope on their wall, while the Holdens have “The Duke” John Wayne adorning theirs as well as a poster of … (sigh) Trump. It’s two rather clever ways to set up the character’s personalities quickly. (On the plus side, the Trump poster does get damaged by the storm.)
The set also features stockpiles of food across the stage: cans of soup, loaves of bread, Little Debbie Zebra Cakes. (It seems wherever I reached out my hand in the damn near magical Holden house, I’d come back with a Zebra Cake in hand!) The cast is a hoot, each bringing stereotypical elements out of their character to garner laughter. The play overall feels like a sitcom, and so the characters need to be somewhat larger than life to properly fit into it.
The Holdens represent plain simple folk who understand the magnificent beast nature can be. Having lived through Fran and Floyd, they will not be caught with their pants down by Florence. Ron Hasson and Paula Davis are adorable as the aged couple who have seen the highs and lows and still are in love at the end the day. Hasson brings an earnest nature to Tweeter (we got some strange names here in the South), a man who will do what’s right by his friends, family and even his annoying Yankee neighbors. Hasson takes the role and makes it the person you want leading your neighborhood watch. Now, his wife Kimmy-Sue is a Lord-loving Republican—a good ol’ girl who will let her opinion fly, even if it is just gossip. Davis is a pure joy in the role and will bring to mind anyone’s Southern-bred mother, sister, grandma, family friend.
Standing on the complete opposite side on the cultural coin are the D’Milos’ Anthony and Sophia. Two displaced Yankees have migrated down to Wilmington for the warm weather. Renton does a solid job bringing that New Jersey bravado to the role of Anthony; though, at times he seems as if he is searching for the next stone to step on with the plot. Lupin Byers impresses yet again with her turn as the prim and pampered Sophia, bringing to mind one of the many “Housewives of Whatever County” and giving Marisa Tomei a run for her money on nailing the Jersey accent.
Wilmington theatre legend Michelle Reiff lives up to her well-honed craft as the live-in mother of Anthony who hasn’t quite figured out how to cut the cord. The bitter rivalry she has with Byers’ Sophia provides some of the best comedic beats and shows off more perfect chemistry.
Making up the ensemble is Kent West and Lynette O’Callaghan, who run the gambit of roles. From radio host to TV anchors, all the way to a Superman suited linemen, they nail it. (And let’s be honest: After a hurricane, linemen are the real heroes.)
Per usual a three-course meal is served with the show, setting up TheatreNOW’s awesome one-two punch for date night. For this production Chef Denise Gordon provides solid, well-balanced selections. Starting the meal is a hurricane salad, topped with fresh fruit and served with a rum pineapple-mango vinaigrette. While salad is refreshing on these hot days, I’ve never be a fan of pineapple, so the vinaigrette did little for me but I can say it did have a nice zest.
The main course is an option of country- fried meatloaf served with mashed potatoes and gravy—my personal favorite, as it’s wonderfully crispy—fresh fish of the day (the option changes weekly) baked in a mild Habanero honey-mustard sauce and topped with pineapple-mango salsa and served with rice pilaf, and mac-n-cheese four ways. I found the fish to be somewhat bland, and also the mac-n-cheese. But I’ll take the hit on the latter; I’m the one person who just doesn’t like mac-n-cheese.
Each month TheatreNOW brings a new show to the Wilmington stage. It’s a quick turnaround, which is very impressive to pull off. Take advantage of the laughs in “A Cat 5 Comedy” before the headaches begin from the new hurricane season.