Theater review: ‘Savannah Sipping Society’




I don’t have much experience with true community theater, which I would define as a theater running mostly on local money and using local talent. I grew up in the world of school plays and church plays, which are both the ultimate community theater and the training ground for all other levels of theater.

Unfortunately, they don’t do that much anymore because not performing well in a school play might damage some delicate self-esteem, so they’ve made it an elite thing where you have to take drama classes and the like to be in theater rather than just being told by the teacher that you were going to be the third tree from the right.

Juneau had some ad hoc theater companies that put on something in various venues; I saw “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in an old laundry.  The early 20th Century industrial architecture worked really well for mental “hospitals” as they once existed. In Juneau, Perseverance Theatre dominated the local theater scene. Perseverance isn’t Broadway or the Kennedy Center, but on its good days is as good as most traveling troupes.  That said, it is only sorta’,  kinda’ community theater because it uses a lot of imported talent, gets a lot of imported money, and is enormously impressed with itself.

So, I combined several things I like to do and went to Wasilla on Friday, March 1, to see the Valley Performing Arts’ presentation of “The Savannah Sipping Society.”

That gave me the opportunity to stop in on the Locomotive 557 engine shop to see the progress of the restoration of the last Alaska Railroad steam engine, and to have dinner at The Grape Tap in Wasilla, another place worth stopping by.

Valley Performing Arts’ Machetanz Theater seats perhaps a couple hundred and is a lot like Perseverance Theatre in Juneau. A $19 front-row seat is a nice relief from Perseverance and a different world from $80 – $100 or more at the Atwood. The sound and lights were more than adequate for a quality production.

Those of you who know me know I can obsess on bad sound, especially in a big, high-dollar hall, but Valley Performing Arts’ was good enough and the hall is small enough to impart a lot of natural sound and spacial relationships. The sets were simple but very well done. There are a lot of costume changes, which makes for a long play — about three hours — with an intermission a little past half way.

I struggled with writing this once I got past the who, what, when, and where part, because — truth is — I thrive on snark, sarcasm, and politics. This production doesn’t offer much to be snarky, sarcastic, or political about. It is mostly just good clean, if a bit adult, fun. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much at anything styled as “theatre.” After all, theater must be so serious these days.

I grew up about 90 miles of two-lane road from Savannah, Georgia and rode the “Nancy Hanks” passenger train there several times to have summer visits with my city cousins.

Savannah is one of the few old Southern cities that has anything truly old in it; Gen. William Sherman had a thing for some woman who lived there and so he didn’t burn it during his march to the sea in the Civil War, during which he vowed to “make Georgia howl,” as he burned everything in his path.

Georgia was the last of the colonies, so there isn’t much that is really old by Virginia or Massachusetts standards. Still, it is a very pretty place with lots of magnolias, live oaks, Spanish moss, and charming if maybe dilapidated buildings. Another plus is that it is above sea level and smells a lot better than New Orleans.

In “Savannah Sipping Society,” we meet four women brought together by finding that maybe “hot yoga” wasn’t for them.   They’re 40, 50, or 60-something in age. One is widowed, one divorced, and one never married.

Dot, Marlafaye, and Randa, are disoriented, lonely, and socially isolated by their situations. They decide to become friends or at least drinking buddies. Along the way they add Jinx to the group, a cosmetician who is trying to restyle herself as a “life coach” for aging single women.

I saw flashes of familiarity in Dot, Marlafaye, and Jinx, but I knew Randa well; it is hard enough for a son to live in the shadow of a Southern mama, but it can be crushing for a daughter. I, too, grew up in the world of steel magnolias, the Southern matriarchs who ruled their progeny with an iron hand and an acid tongue. I had three generations of them for some of my young life.

Dot, played by Cathy John, isn’t really a Southerner but a transplanted Northerner who moved with her husband to their dream of a Tybee Island retirement home before he did her the disservice of dying on her.  She is in some ways the most compelling character because she is the most optimistic.

Marlafaye, played by Cora Carlson, is the most dominant character, or at least she has most of the best laugh lines. She did the all too familiar Dixie Darlin’ routine of marrying some high-school sweetheart, making most of the money and taking most of the responsibility for some years, and then having him run off with a 23-year-old dental hygienist; she has a certain amount of bitterness and man-hating but at least it comes from somewhere other than a college textbook.

It is a good story, a romantic comedy really, though not boy-girl romance but rather the romance of finding friendship and it is truly funny. I’m not going to put on my “true Southerner” hat and say “that ain’t right,” though some of it is forced, but it is genuinely entertaining. These are largely amateurs; they are talented amateurs, but nevertheless amateurs, and actually I like that for its genuineness.

There were some flubbed lines and more than a little ad libbing as one character helps another through the lines, but it is an altogether credible performance and well worth the drive to Wasilla.

I got to this so late that I don’t know that you’ll have time to see it, but take note of the company; they do some good work and you don’t have to put up with the dark negativism of so much of modern theater.   Funny thing; for as snobby as Perseverance or the the Atwood can be, the audience in Wasilla was better dressed.

The play has one more performance on March 3. Tickets and other information is here.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is a former theater reviewer for the Juneau Empire and the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.