"Turned funny" is Southern for "she's crazy." As a young woman, Celestine Sibley learned this when asking about an older woman in town who, dressed like a belle, waved daily at nonexistent ships pulling into port. Where others mocked this older woman, Sibley's mother assured her that the woman was just a little different, that every Southern family had someone who was "turned funny." The phase became the title of Sibley's 1988 memoir, and it is the title of the gentle heart-tugger of a play that opens the 25th season of Theatre in the Square, in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta.
Celestine Sibley — homespun, irascible, tough, and truth-seeking — was an Atlanta icon. She spent 60 years as a newspaper reporter and columnist, including penning more than 10,000 columns for the Atlanta Constitution between 1941 and 1999, spinning Southern gold with a manual typewriter and later, with mulish reluctance, a computer keyboard. She wrote of the region's rhythms and rituals, its tomato plants and twilights, the quirky nature of its people. She understood them because she, too, had her quirks.
The details of Sibley's life are as vivid as red Georgia clay, and Atlanta playwright Phillip DePoy, no fool he, uses her words whenever possible. Turned Funny starts with the facts, as Sibley always did. "Well, I'm dead," she says, looking straight at the audience. "I know this for two reasons." One, she says, is the set. The other: "I'm reading my obituary. That's a dead giveaway."
The beauty of Turned Funny, which is directed by Fred Chappell, lies in Linda Stephens' performance as Sibley, a memorable character in life now memorably re-imagined onstage. Known for her work in regional theatres and on and Off-Broadway, Stephens brings Sibley gloriously back to life. She knows her speech patterns, how she tilted her head to listen, how she'd swing her elbows when excited, how she would awkwardly grab her ever-ready cardigan (costumes by Linda Patterson). But Stephens' work is more than impersonation. She gets certain intangibles right, connecting with Sibley's one-of-a-kind spirit and determination, the way she took life straight on, through high tide and low. Her portrayal is eerie in a way, but also feels sacred and spot-on.
Two other actors play a total of 17 characters. Atlanta regular Jill Jane Clements succeeds in most of her seven roles, especially as Muv, Sibley's beloved mother, a colorful figure who was a singing cowgirl act in vaudeville and an unapologetic bigamist. Ric Reitz plays 10 roles, ranging from a school-age bully to several newspaper editors, Sibley's father and stepfather, and Sibley's two husbands.
When Turned Funny is produced again — and it should be — the cast must grow so these actors can craft real characters. The music, too, needs a second look. Three musicians are onstage, sometimes behind a scrim, sometimes out front, playing the playwright's compositions as well as Sibley's favorites. Recorded music would be less intrusive and less hokey.
Still, it's hard to beat a star turn, and that's what Stephens gives, finding the nooks, crannies, and dead-center heart of a truly unforgettable woman, one who was peculiarly Southern but who transcended both time and geography.
Turned Funny runs Aug. 9-Sept. 24 at Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta, Ga. Tickets: (770) 422-8369. Website: www.theatreinthesquare.com.