Casting can make or break many a play, and it's especially crucial for works such as Beth Henley's first professionally produced script: a Southern Gothic seriocomedy that's essentially a character study. It's hard to know how much of her own life Mississippian Henley worked into her 1979 play about the Magrath sisters in Hazlehurst, Miss., circa 1974, but her focus is this female trio's interactions past and present. Phyllis B. Gitlin's staging is fully realized in a physical sense (thanks to Greg Fritsche's meticulously detailed kitchen set) and in how it animates Henley's characters.
Despite their physical dissimilarities, Amy Moorman, Stephanie Schulz, and Lisa Perez mirror one another's speech patterns and movements to create the illusion of close family members. Moorman is especially affecting as eldest sister Lenny, the pretty yet plain, careworn caretaker upon whose 30th birthday the play unfolds. Her birthday forgotten, Lenny's bad day is captured perfectly by Moorman's frumpy timidity and painful self-consciousness. Like Moorman's Lenny, Schulz's portrayal of Meg, the hard-drinking, hard-living middle sister, is rooted in realism, a feisty free spirit tamed by life's harsh realities. As youngest sister Babe, Perez carries echoes of Bernadette Peters' little-girlishness, with Shirley Temple overtones. Much like her character, Perez is irrepressible, and she exhibits this cast's most skilled comic timing.
Just the same, Gitlin minimizes many of the text's laughs, none of which are cheap, while bringing out the considerable pathos that's a subtext for every thought, word, and action of Lenny, Meg, and Babe. Dee Dee Rescher introduces winning eccentricity into the role of the sisters' priggish, judgmental cousin; Julian Draven is reassuring and subdued as the old flame Meg let get away and Lenny still has a crush on; and Daniel Dotterer matches up nicely with Perez as the ambitious young attorney who's smitten with Babe.
Presented by and at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre,
5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach.
Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. (Also Sun. 2 p.m. Oct. 14 & Nov. 4-11 only.) Oct. 13-Nov. 24.
(562) 494-1014. www.lbph.com.