Traditionally, theaters in Macon pick their seasons from classics, those plays and musicals that have been staged exhaustively because they are proven to sell seats. It is no secret in the theater community that, as technology continues to develop, interest in live theater continues to wane. To survive in such an environment, theaters target specific audiences. Why produce a season of new plays if the classics are paying the bills? Luckily, Theatre Macon is not completely satisfied with this “safe theater” model and is taking a risk with its staging of Swell Party.
Swell Party premiered in January 2013 at the Georgia Ensemble Theatre and Conservatory in Roswell. The playwright, Topher Payne, is from Mississippi and currently lives in Atlanta. He has been named Best Local Playwright in several publications, including The GA Voice and Creative Loafing, and in 2013 was the winner of a Suzi Bass Award, the Atlanta “Tonys.”
Theatre Macon kicked off its 30th season with Swell Party, which ran September 4-12. The play is a comical interpretation of the alleged suicide of Smith Reynolds (Smitty), heir of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The play is a cleverly concocted reenactment of the actual events leading up to Smitty’s death. Shortly after Smitty brings home his new wife, actor Libby Holman, he is found dead, and those present that fateful evening recollect the events of the night leading up to his demise. The setting is the Reynolda House Library in North Carolina, a home dripping with Southern order and tradition; a country estate where it is considered rude to show up early, women curtsy and wait for men to open doors, and “bless your heart” is never too far from the tip of the tongue. The play is sprinkled with colorful characters, and Payne graciously provides a variety ranging from the perfect Southern belle to eccentric Northern thespians. Payne skillfully harnesses the power of metadrama,1 utilizes historical context, and pokes fun at Southern traditions to create an entertaining night of theater.
The night I attended Swell Party at Theatre Macon, the house was nearly sold out. The woman I sat next to chatted with her date, letting him know a friend of hers had really enjoyed the performance the night prior. Apparently, the show had stirred some interest. As I looked around, I saw mostly white hair, Theatre Macon’s main demographic; however, a second glance showed tiny clusters of younger groups.
The set design was beautiful, giving an authentic atmosphere for the play, and the costumes were clever. Costume designer Shelley Kuhen used the colors of the costumes to enhance the story. Blanche Yurka, Libby Holman’s acting coach, for example, wore an outlandish, bright yellow, costume, which served as a perfect juxtaposition to the wardrobes of the Southern belles, which were much more muted and conservative. In addition to the script’s well written contrasts, the cast further helped to paint the differences in Southern money and Northern sass through their physical interactions and body language. When Libby, the embodiment of Northern sass, is first introduced to the Reynolds family, she reveals too much about her family history, smacks her butt, shakes hands too roughly for a lady, and doesn’t know when to curtsy. These contrasts are throughout the play and contribute to the humor and fun of the piece.
The only element that would have made the night more enjoyable for me was the staging. With such a great set, I wanted to see the actors utilize the space more fully. I believe it would have made the climax of the play—when Babe, Kate Reynolds’s assistant, is revealed to be the main reason for Smitty’s suicide—even more powerful and the conflicts of the play more threatening. At first, I found the transitions from present to past to be confusing, but as the play progressed I began to understand the flow and transitions (and observe the subtle light changes). Overall, the experience was positive, and the audience seemed engaged. As I chuckled with the woman sitting next to me about a reference to Southern etiquette, I wondered if this play would be as well received in the North.
The staging of Swell Party provided a perfect opportunity to recognize a younger playwright, and to appeal to Macon’s already established audience demographic while piquing the interest of younger patrons. Middle Georgia has not given up on new works and Theatre Macon is helping to point out the worthiness of new plays. The takeaway for this Midwesterner? Macon is home to very talented actors, I got a history lesson about the early 1900s, got to giggle at theater references that some audience members didn’t catch, and learned a few new Southern vocabulary words to practice on my friends the next time I’m trying to make everything tickety boo because some flibbertigibbet has got my friend in a tizzy.
1. Metadrama: When a play makes reference to the fact that it is a play and/or uses theater within its plot.
Read the article from the Chicago Tribune on Smitty Reynolds’s death here.
Josy Jones is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. She has a BA in Theatre and is an actor, director and playwright. Since Josy believes art should be at the center of the community, she enjoys being an active community member and can usually be found supporting local artists and/or volunteering to help artists (photographers, painters, etc.) with their work and events.
This article was made possible with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of an arts journalism partnership between BURNAWAY and Macon Arts Alliance.