Beth Henley's 1984 play is a confection that casts a wry, nonjudgmental look at a Southern family, then mines what it sees for laughs and a few choice observations about human nature. Henley sees the gracious manners and quaint customs of Southern life as worthwhile yet satire-worthy, sketching outsize caricatures that just happen to be real, down-to-earth folks. Director Rayanne Trumbo obliges with plenty of laughs and just enough of a bittersweet taste to preserve Henley's perspective on her specific world. Trumbo and her cast bring an arch sense of humor while delineating the basic innocence of Henley's figures, helping us empathize with these lovably quirky eccentrics even as we chuckle at them.
MC Wolfe is too attractive to be playing so insecure a character as Carnelle Scott, whose last shot at her small town's annual Independence Day beauty pageant symbolizes her family's efforts to reconstitute itself in the wake of harsh reality, but her performance is credible, causing us to root for this Southern belle underdog. Building on Wolfe's work is Neda Armstrong as Popeye, Carnelle's bespectacled, frumpy, ever-loyal sidekick. Like Wolfe, Armstrong delivers a portrait of a young woman who keeps her dreams small lest she be crushed by life.
Julie Hommel has a heavy drawl and languorously blasé manner as Carnelle's elder cousin Elain, who won the Miss Firecracker title years ago at age 17. Hommel's timing well serves the character's many throwaway lines. Trumping her is Eric Goldstein as Delmount, Elain's shabby yet courtly iconoclast of a brother. A fine slapstick comic, Goldstein uses his lanky frame, wild eyes, and long, straggly hair to express the droll Delmount's perpetual state of exasperation and dislike of pretension. Tracy Marquis gives the equally eccentric Mac Sam-a pale, chain-smoking, whiskey-guzzling carny dying of lung cancer-a quiet presence and an idiosyncratic line delivery.
Trumbo's costumes feature exaggeratedly funny patriotic motifs, while Jon Gaw's set for the first act-the home of Elain and Delmount's now-deceased mom-carries more of a Southwestern than a Southern flavor, yet is eminently eye-appealing.
Presented by and at Stages Theatre Company, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m. Jun. 9-Jul. 15. (714) 525-4484.