They first met when they were eighteen. Five young southern women at college who despite their differences somehow clicked. They called themselves the Dixie Swim Club. Aware of how life can and probably will change for each of them, they make a friendship vow. For one weekend each August, they will meet in the heat and humidity of North Carolina’s Outer Banks at the same beachfront cottage while spending a couple of days bonding, gossiping, drinking, and doing whatever else might occur. Their rules include no men and no work. Their mantra? “The faster we swim, the sooner we win!”
Now playing at Scottsdale Desert Stages’ smaller forum of its Actor’s Café until August 4 under KatiBelle Collins’ direction, The Dixie Swim Club, running approximately two hours with intermission, highlights four of those annual beachfront reunions, beginning at a time when the members of the self-titled club are forty-four, concluding some thirty-three years later.
When we first meet these five feisty southern belles it’s been twenty-two years since college graduation. No longer teenagers with the hopes and smiles of a bright future, the ladies have each developed a clearly defined character. There’s the organizer, Sheree (Rachel Brumfield). She’s the one who books the cottage and writes the schedule of events. Besides attempting to keep things upbeat and making the weekend events run smooth, Sheree has a habit of making the worst tasting cocktail appetizers in North Carolina. Once sampled, they usually end up taking a flying spit-leap out of the kitchen window, though not necessarily when Sheree’s watching.
Then there’s Dinah (CJ Boston), the alcohol swigging, never married, no-nonsense lawyer who has brought her briefcase with work files to study in the evening, even though the unwritten agreement of the Dixie Swim Club clearly indicates no work. “First time I breached the rules in twenty-two years,” Dinah declares with a so-sue-me attitude.
Next, there’s Vernadette (Lisa Farrell) who brings everyone up to date with her continual family issues, like the kids who face a promising future of perpetual incarceration and a husband who favors walking out of the marriage. “He can’t handle my PMS,” Vernadette declares.
Also facing husband conflicts is the club’s queen of cosmetic surgery, Lexie (Virginia Olivieri) a woman who favors a trip to labiaplasty in Melbourne and a little nip and tuck from time to time, just to maintain that youthful quality of those college years. The men in the revolving door of Lexie’s love life never seem to hang around that long, which rarely comes as a surprise to the women. When she makes the sudden announcement that she’s now divorced, no one seems to care. “I just shared some life-altering news with you,” Lexie declares, “And I want to talk about it!” Evidently, the ladies don’t. During the past twenty-two annual weekends, clearly, it’s a conversation they’ve had before.
Finally, there’s Jeri Neal (Stephanie Vlasich) whose chosen path had included taking her vows as a Bride of Christ and living with the other nuns at the convent, only this year things are different. A change of heart and an altered perspective occurred since they last met. For the first time in the history of the club’s reunions, once she arrives, Jeri Neal becomes the sudden center of the ladies’ attention; her entrance gives the play its first big laugh.
Each new scene ages the women by several years until the inevitable gray and a few unwelcome health issues finally take over. During their fifty-five years of friendship, we get to meet the women on four separate occasions, each reunion revealing something new in their lives that ultimately shape how things are going to be the next time they meet.
There’s an undeniable sense of TV to the play’s comic timing. Only in the world of television comedy would a character in a scene say something clearly funny and no one else in the room laughs (except, of course, the audience). It’s no surprise, then, that the collaboration of writers Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten sprung from TV, having written and produced several episodes of The Golden Girls. The rhythm of a quick setup followed by the payoff then on to a different subject is constant. It’s a formula best appreciated by audiences whose principle exposure to comedy is from television and not the theatre, but it’s a style that has worked regionally well for the trio of writers who used the same approach for another full-length comedy, The Savannah Sipping Society, a play revolving around not five but four Southern women who meet for happy hour. You can imagine the writer’s Swim Club pitch to potential backers; it’s Same Time, Next Year meets Steel Magnolias at a Golden Girls beachfront property.
Because of its sit-com base, The Dixie Swim Club is constantly witty, delivering a consistent barrage of snarky one-liners, quotable asides, and several amusing visual gags, such as Vernadette’s arm-sling in the first scene, followed by a crutch in the next, and a neck brace ten years later. It’s not that the healing equipment has anything to do with plot or even character, or that any of the other characters even mention them, but it’s a running gag that simply looks funny, which is why they’re there. When Jeri Neal explains her change of heart from living the convent life and developing a sudden interest in artificial insemination, it’s Lexie (of course) who points out, “The other way is more fun.” Plus, anyone who knows North Carolina and has lived there will appreciate Vernadette’s love letter to the great, freshly baked southern biscuit.
With a brightly lit and hugely effective beach cottage set designed by the play’s director and Rick Sandler, the smaller setting of the company’s Actor’s Café is put to excellent use, creating the illusion of more space than is often depicted. The challenge for Desert Stages is always to choose a play that works in the given forum. The Dixie Swim Club was never Broadway-bound, but as regional theatre with sit-com sensibilities, presented in this enjoyably lively Actor’s Café production with this cast, each of whom seems just right for the character type they portray, director Collins has delivered a perfect fit.
The Dixie Swim Club continues at Scottsdale Desert Stages Actor’s Café in Scottsdale until August 4
Pictures courtesy of Wade Moran