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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Strong women have fun in 'Bridesmaid'

Angie Schworer, Tauren Hagans, Aleisha Force, Marci Reid and Jane Bushway star in ‘Always a Bridesmaid’ at Flat Rock Playhouse.  [TREADSHOTS photo] Angie Schworer, Tauren Hagans, Aleisha Force, Marci Reid and Jane Bushway star in ‘Always a Bridesmaid’ at Flat Rock Playhouse. [TREADSHOTS photo]

There is resilience in a Southern woman. Steel is the metaphor that comes to mind.

Reminiscent of the themes in Steel Magnolias, “Always a Bridesmaid” highlights the resilience among Southern women that comes from loyalty, forbearance for one another’s quirks, shared suffering, a wicked sense of humor and a willingness to forgive lapses in judgment, especially lapses in judgment about men.

Not every young girl fantasizes about the perfect wedding, but few events carry the raw emotional content and capacity for high drama as holy matrimony. When four high school friends meet to console one another for having no date to the prom, they seal their Best Friends Forever status with vows to be bridesmaids in each other’s wedding. True to this promise, they come together at the same venue each time one of them is ready to seal the deal with a man who may or may not be worthy.

Libby Ruth (Aleisha Force) has the most stable marriage and is mother to the only child mentioned in the group. Charlie (Marci Reid) prefers landscaping to romantic entanglement and resists her friends’ pressure to join them in their institutional coupling. Tauren Hagans (Deedra) is secure in both her position as a judge and in her long-term marriage (until she isn’t.) Monette (Angie Schworer) is the serial monogamist who has taxed her friends’ loyalty the most calling them together in the opening group scene to stand with her for her third marriage to a man she has known all of two weeks.

Force and Reid each make their Playhouse debut in "Bridesmaid." Force gives us a Libby Ruth who is anxious to keep a lid on any conflict and for all plans to be executed to perfection. Libby Ruth is good-hearted but needs to chill. Charlie, played by Reid, at first appears to be an all-too-familiar stereotype — a high school tomboy grown into an adult who runs a deficit in the area of social graces. The message perpetrated by her friends is that she hasn’t found the right man because she doesn’t try hard enough. If she would only tame her hair, get a wardrobe and sit properly she would have no trouble finding fulfillment in marriage. In one scene, she is ready to commit, but harbors second thoughts when she realizes at least two of her three friends haven’t had such great luck in their connubiality.

Schworer and Hagans have just completed a very successful run at the Playhouse as Rosie and Tanya in “Mamma Mia!” As Monette, Schworer again brings her platinum blonde glamour to the stage, playing her part as the self-absorbed man-chaser who appears to take marriage lightly. She barely seems to notice her friends’ not-so-subtle digs at her inability to make a marriage stick. Hagans as Deedra has judicial bearing and, indeed, she sometimes comes across as “judgey” by aiming sardonic barbs at her friends for the choices they make.

Adding dimension to the group of four are two other cast members who have memorable roles. Kari (Emily Fink) opens the play appearing stage right in a bridal gown while delivering the bride’s speech to her wedding guests (the audience) and sipping champagne. Her monologue continues at various points throughout the play, and over time her relationship to the four friends becomes more apparent. Fink gave a wonderful performance as a woman engaged to be married in “Mamma Mia!” and here she delivers her speech with comic energy growing more and more intoxicated with each sip. She is a talented performer so it is unfortunate that the content of Fink’s monologue is one of the weaker parts of the script. The jokes are too predictable. What is not weak is the performance of Jane Bushway. As Sedalia, the veteran Vagabond is the owner of the wedding venue and the one who keeps things on track. Sedalia is elegant and gracious until you test her patience or mess with her income stream. That’s when she is likely to get out her axe.

The opening scene with the four friends seemed sluggish. It was opening night so there were the expected knocks and pings in the timing. The humor in the script also seemed a little forced. However, by the third scene with the four friends together, all pistons were firing with precision. The French themed costumes were fun, the jokes fresh and the actors’ energy high. Bushway was at her most forceful as the venue proprietor who gives no quarter, and each character was beginning to reveal aspects of themselves beneath their superficial persona.

The surprising and satisfying aspect of “Always a Bridesmaid” is that by the end of the play each character, with the help of her friends, breaks out of her initial stereotype and becomes a more complex, relatable person. Libby Ruth finally accepts that there are things beyond her control. Judge Deedra shows a vulnerable side, allowing herself to be adored. Glamorous Monette ignores her own discomfort to be present at Kari’s wedding come hell or high water. Charlie has perhaps the greatest growth. For nearly forty years she has felt incomplete around her friends because she never married. But finally she is able to assert that she is happy, truly happy, as she is.

The set design was appealing with a lovely sense of depth created by invisible walls and interesting corners. The costuming crew must have had fun plumbing the possibilities of bridesmaid outfits. They ran the gamut from gorgeous to teeth-grinding. The music that framed the scenes was an inspired choice – bluegrass renditions of pop favorites such as Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” and Abba’s “Take a Chance on Me” (yes, there’s one last echo from “Mamma Mia!”). Scott Treadway, a favorite comedy actor at the Playhouse, proved that he is an able comedy director.

“Always a Bridesmaid” was co-written by Nicholas Hope, Jessie Jones, and Jamie Wooten. Jones is the only woman of the three, but Wooten has proven his ability to write in a woman’s voice, having earned his chops writing scripts for “The Golden Girls.” Only a woman can judge if the voices of the women in “Bridesmaids” are authentic. The opening night audience did have a few more women than men. Some men may wonder if they will be able to relate to the female characters and if they can enjoy even the jokes that come at their expense. Judging from the response of the opening night audience, the answer is yes.

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“Always A Bridesmaid” runs through Sept. 9 at Flat Rock Playhouse. Tickets are $20-52 with a child ticket at $17 (17 and under). For tickets call 828-693-0731 or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org.