Wilmingtonians love Southern writer Celia Rivenbark. Her weekly Sunday column in the StarNews covers much of what’s happening in our world from a humorous perspective that can advise any Yankee real quick on how to properly dine at a fish camp. Whether buoying the discrepancies between Donald Trump’s misogyny eerily backed by Christian evangelicals or dishing out reality to upcoming graduates, her cheeky 500 words of observations manage an escape into clichéd Southern humor.
She’s also got quite a few books to boot, which TheatreNOW has turned into productions in their dinner-theatre setting over the last two years. They’ve adapted “Rude Bitches Make Me Tired” and its sequel, and now artistic director Zach Hanner has turned the pages of Rivenbark’s national bestseller “We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier: Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle” into a world-premiere stage adaptation.
As in “Rude Bitches” we see the return of some of the same actresses, including the zany Belinda Bizic Keller and Katherine Rudeseal, whose demure strength appropriates every Southern woman with a touch of class. Tamara Mercer, Lynn Ingram and Pam Smith round out the cast to help move the show from skit to skit. It’s set up in a multitude of “chapters,” so to speak, including “What Type of Southern Woman Are You?”, “The Man Bun” and “Day at the Spa Went Shit Creek,” among others. The five ladies interact across two hours, dishing and advising about their hangups with family, friends, acquaintances, and life’s general ups and downs. It’s almost like they’re front-porch sittin’, armed with daily gossip and the help of a four-pack of wine coolers—maybe some spiked lemonade—Stringbean’s Lemonade, to be precise.
They use the character Stringbean to discuss funerals in the South—more specifically the proper ways to eat at one. Lynn Ingram’s quip about someone being so thoughtful to die in the summer really resonates: “Fresh butter beans and tomatoes straight from the garden will be served.” In fact, Ingram closely parallels Southern women I know well—presumably from rural towns and who make simple statements they truly mean no harm by but somehow come loaded with slices of insensitivity. Her dialect is perfect: Not one syllable (especially when turning one-word syllables into two, like “chip”—“chee-up”) feels forced or fake.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Pam Smith’s voice is perfectly suited for NPR. Why is this a big deal? Well, a bonafide Southern drawl feels integral to delivering Rivenbark’s words. Thus, Smith may be the most “progressive” Southerner in the show. She wrangles it back in for the bit about elders not having their dark meat at the local KFC.
Rudeseal and Keller are seasoned for Rivenbark’s work. They have the one-up of already gelling and understanding a flow and vibe to take on the material. Even when Keller slipped up on the text during Friday night’s opening, it fit to near perfection: “Well, [shit,] I forgot where I was.” I’ve heard that numerous times on my grandmother’s back porch in Belmont, NC.
Some of the funnier moments take place at the beginning, especially as they properly divulge “How to Become Honest-to-Jesus White Trash”:
“Don’t file tax returns…”
“Dress the kids in NASCAR but teach them to hate Jeff Gordon…”
“Buy tons of lottery tickets; the children can eat mustard sandwiches all week…”
“Ever give birth on a pool table?”
But the real kicker is watching Tamara Mercer attempt to drive and “shave down there” simultaneously. The best euphemism for a vagina I may have ever heard is uttered to produce, at least for me, the funniest cackle of the night: “love rug.”
While there are moments of sincere laughter that take place, there are also moments of browbeating a joke. It’s obvious the text of the 2005 book has been updated by Hanner, as it includes recent thoughts on HB2. However, it devolves into a way-too-long scene about paper potty covers that churn out few laughs. If anything, it seems like too many hands were in the writing pot. This dilutes Rivenbark’s voice instead of elevating it. Already soddened by stereotypes I would rather get away from as a Southerner, the show doubles down on it with the inclusion of only country music (and I’m not talking the good kind, a la Dolly, Loretta, George, Willie, Waylon, or Johnny) and at times unnecessary memes that compete with what’s being verbalized. Timing and flow waxes and wanes except when Rivenbark herself is showcased via video, and the audience hears her tone and cadence weave the fabric of a Southerner’s life. Maybe it’s the writer in me, but if TheatreNOW takes another go at her work, I personally would like to hear Rivenbark deliver it live.