Sitting through “The Sugar Bean Sisters,” Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest offering, is a lot like getting a beautiful box of expensive chocolates for Valentine’s Day only to find there’s a gift certificate to a local gym inside.
The set, lighting, sound and every other technical aspect of the show far outshone the script. Three of the area’s best actresses almost rose above Nathan Sanders’ flawed story of sisters living in a Florida swamp in a town called Sugar Bean. In the end, members of Wednesday night’s audience paused before leaving the theater to take in Sean McClelland’s vibrant set, which exuded the warmth and sunshine so sought after in Maine’s seemingly unending winter. It, along with Tonry Lathroum’s intricate lighting design and Brandie Rita’s layered sound design, brought the backwaters of central Florida to life in ways none of the playwright’s words managed to do.
Bari Newport, PTC’s artistic director who also directed “The Sugar Bean Sisters,” should be applauded for selecting works that have not been produced in Maine. But she needs to know which cultural references will resonate with her audience and which ones won’t when making her decisions. The Nettles sisters may be to Florida what novelist Carolyn Chute’s Bean family was to the Pine Tree State but few Mainers probably venture far enough from Orlando to find them, let alone recognize them.
Sanders either went too far in the eccentricities he gave his characters — one is waiting for the return of an alien ship to rescue her, another hoping a good man will come along — or not far enough to push the story into a farce of mistaken identities and bumbled attempts at homicide. He couldn’t seem to decide if “The Sugar Bean Sisters” is a family comedy or a tragic tale of the last of the native Floridians.
While the script may be flawed, Newport’s direction of the production was not. She kept the action moving, used every inch of McClelland’s set to its advantage and kept all three of her leading ladies on an even keel and on par with each other. Irene Dennis, A.J. Mooney and Jasmine Ireland worked together to stay afloat as if they knew each would drown separately if they did hold the others’ heads above water.
Dennis gave Willie May Nettles a disarming pout that brought out the character’s inner 5-year-old. Somehow, the actress found a hidden charm under Willie May’s manipulative older sister that made her at times the most likable and sympathetic Nettles.
As Videllia Sparks, the lost cage dancer from New Orleans, Ireland looked like some exotic bird plucked from a rain forest in her costume arrayed with brightly colored feathers. The actress flitted around onstage in high-heeled boots as if she was afraid her feet would stick to tar and she’d be stuck in Sugar Bean, Fla., forever, which is her character’s greatest fear. Ireland was delightfully loony in the role.
It was Mooney who infused the play with more soul than the playwright may have written for her character. As Faye Clementine Nettles, she gave a nuanced and, what was for Mooney, understated portrayal. An actress known for over-the-top performances that sometimes have overpowered lesser actors, Mooney harnessed that energy to create the practical, problem-solving sister trapped by circumstances and filial duty. It was the unwavering hope Mooney infused in Faye Clementine that glowed like sunshine and occasionally gave Sanders’ script more depth than it deserved.
Steve Gormley and Phillippa Harvey completed the cast in smaller roles. Both performed well but Harvey’s Reptile Woman sometimes was difficult to understand.
While “The Sugar Bean Sisters” will not be remembered as one of PTC’s greatest hits, it is worthy of a trip to the theater for the performances of its three stars and its technical perfection.
Newport, who has been with the company a little more than year, can be forgiven a misstep so early in her tenure. The artistic director does, however, need to shorten her welcome speech before the show. She delayed the start of the play nearly 15 minutes Wednesday night, far too long for an audience eager to see what would happen on McClelland’s stunning set.
“The Sugar Bean Sisters” will be performed through Sunday. For information, call 942-3333 or visit penobsocttheatre.org.
Editor’s Note: The BDN is one of the sponsors of the Penobscot Theatre Company.