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Review: 'The Sugar Bean Sisters'

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Like a page from the Weekly World News brought to life, Nathan Sanders' The Sugar Bean Sisters is an improbable "swamp tale" filled with flying cats and flying saucers, sisterly betrayal, and voodoo curses. And like those supermarket tabloids that keep us occupied as we queue up at the checkout, The Sugar Bean Sisters provides an oasis from the real world, keeping us laughing and entertained in the face of grim realities.

In its superbly performed, well-directed debut as a professional Equity company, the Studio Theatre offers the stage equivalent of a summer popcorn movie: lightweight escapist fare that is nonetheless well done from top to bottom, including a knock-your-wig-off set courtesy of designer Michael Peters. He is just one member of a high-performing cast and crew that producer Jacqueline Schultz, who stages this production, has assembled for her 11-year-old theatre's step into the big leagues.

Faye Clementine Nettles (Nancy Madden) and sibling Willie Mae (Chris Hille) are a pair of twisted spinster sisters in the mythical hamlet of Sugar Bean, Fla. It's summertime and the living is anything but easy as the cynical and frustrated Faye plots her escape from the one-gator town via an alien spaceship, which is due to return on the 20th anniversary of its original close encounter with Sugar Bean. Dithering and dotty (and hairless) Willie Mae dreams of a new life in the celestial kingdom promised by the Book of Mormon.

Throwing a monkey wrench into schemes for salvation is Videllia Sparks (Nisa Davis Hayden), a molting and mysterious "bird lady" from New Orleans whose visit to the Nettles homestead isn't as accidental as she leads us to believe. Before the night is through, Sanders' surreal story -- a mix of Green Acres and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? -- takes several more absurd turns, including visits from a spell-casting Reptile Lady (Lauren Charlesworth) and a Scripture-toting Mormon bishop (Jay Charlesworth).

Madden and Hille are a fabulously earnest pair, whose dead-serious demeanor makes the loopy dialogue all the funnier. Hayden adds sex and sparkle in her flamboyant performance, which is the best of the show.

That being said, it's impossible not to fall under Lauren Charlesworth's spell as the creepy snake-handler, who adds an engaging bit of gothic spookiness to the proceedings. And, as mentioned, Peters' set is a wondrous accomplishment -- detailed, meticulous, and enhanced by his own lighting design.

Director Schultz keeps the pace moving in this very funny, very well acted staging that may not leave us lying awake at night pondering the human condition, but does leave us smiling.

The Sugar Bean Sisters runs April 13-July 2 at the Studio Theatre, 1028 R St., Sacramento, Calif. Tickets: (916) 446-2668. Website: www.thestudiotheatre.net.

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