Faye Clementine Nettles is waiting for the aliens to take her away from her ramshackle cabin in the swamps of South Florida. She has sandwiches and chips packed and ready to sustain her for the intergalactic trip. She’s ready. Her sister, Willie Mae, isn’t so sure, preferring to wait for a nice man who shares her (recently adopted) Mormon faith rather than extraterrestrials.
What they both end up getting is something different — something not quite what they wanted, but not what they don’t want, either. That’s what Nathan Sanders’ play “The Sugar Bean Sisters,” which has its Maine premiere Jan. 30 at the Penobscot Theatre, spends a couple of hours figuring out. It follows the antics of the Nettle sisters — played here by AJ Mooney (Faye) and Irene Dennis (Willie Mae) — and the mysterious stranger, Vidalia Sparks, played by Jasmine Ireland, who shows up on their doorstep.
PTC Director Bari Newport is intimately familiar with the play — she’s directly responsible for helping Sanders develop “Sugar Bean” from its original 1995 script when she was working at Florida Repertory in Fort Myers, Fla.
“It came across my desk and I thought it was really, really funny, but the playwright said he just hadn’t been able to get it published,” said Newport. “So we spent a lot of time going over it and adding things, like the outhouse and the graveyard and expanding Vidalia’s character and all kinds of things. And after our production in Florida, it was published.”
The play has since been produced 75 times nationwide, with audiences responding to its blend of colloquial southern language, camp comedy and sci-fi whimsy.
“It’s a southern gothic comedy. It’s Tennessee Williams meets Orson Welles,” said Newport. “The dialogue is so specific and so funny in such a fanciful way. All the real places and little references create the world they live in. That’s what drew me into the play in the first place.”
The set reflects the strange world that the sisters live in. Designed by Sean McClelland, who worked with Newport in Florida, it features the Nettles’ cabin in its funky, falling apart glory — the set appears to be sinking slowly off the stage, and is constructed from cedar wood hand-painted by McClelland to appear water-stained.
Mooney, who plays Faye, said the relationship between the Nettles sisters is at the core of the story — they were orphaned at a young age, and have grown up together, raising each other and bringing out the best and the worst in each other. Both Faye and Willie Mae are looking for a way out, whether it’s through a man, or in a spaceship.
“She really believes that the aliens are coming, and they’re going to lift her out of her life and away from everything,” said Mooney, of her character. “She’s very hopeful. They’re both full of a lot of hope.”
“They have this really enmeshed relationship,” said Dennis, who plays Willie Mae. “They’re absolutely haunted by what’s happened in their lives. They’re isolated, especially Willie Mae … I think Willie is terrified by the idea of losing Faye, if the aliens do come. It’s one of those plays that when you hear the basic plot you go, ‘Huh?’ But it’s an absolute hoot. It’s very, very funny, but also very poignant.”
Which is entirely the reason Newport planned such an odd, funny play about three women in a hot, humid Florida swamp for a cold, barren February in Maine.
“Things that happen in February should be funny,” said Newport. “People want to laugh when it’s cold, and it’s the funniest play this season.”
“The Sugar Bean Sisters” opens in previews on Jan. 30 at the Bangor Opera House, with a premiere on Feb. 1. It runs through Feb. 17. For tickets, visit penobscottheatre.org, or call 942-3333.