Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Spamilton: An American Parody
The plot tells the story of five women who met when they were members of their university swim team. They reunite each August for a weekend free from the demands and requirements of their husbands, kids, and jobs at the same beach cottage on North Carolina's Outer Banks. The play begins when the women are in their 40s and over the course of four weekends set across more than 30 years, we see how this quintet of very different but very close friends grow old while facing the ups and downs of life together.
In the realm of other plays, TV shows, and films such as Steel Magnolias, "The Golden Girls," Beaches, "Designing Women," and Fried Green Tomatoes, Jones, Hope and Wooten have found a successful formula in writing plays that feature strong female characters, heartwarming moments, and fun, comical situations. The Dixie Swim Club may present characters and situations that aren't exactly original, and some of the set-ups and plot elements border on sitcom territory (Wooten was a writer for several seasons of "The Golden Girls"), but the play doesn't always go where you're thinking it will. While the women in The Dixie Swim Club don't approach the kooky characters in other Jones, Hope and Wooten comedies, such as The Red Velvet Cake Wars, it does feature some funny comic bits and slightly broad situations. Also, and most importantly, it has realistic dialogue that focuses on common topics, including dealing with children, marriage and romance concerns, health issues, and the problems of aging, and a huge heart at its center.
The Desert Stages cast does a very good job ensuring the headstrong women they portray never come across as stereotypical individuals or caricatures. There isn't a weak link in the cast, with each, under KatiBelle Collins' clear direction, beautifully depicting both the strengths and weaknesses of these identifiable women in portrayals that never falter and are entirely credible. You also instantly believe the five actresses have been friends for over 20 years.
Rachel Brumfield is appropriately energetic and spunky as Sheree, the highly organized leader of the group who attempts to keep everyone in line with her prearranged, by the hour, agendas for their weekends together. CJ Boston perfectly depicts the strong, career-focused Dinah who seems to always have a cocktail in hand, and Virginia Olivieri is hilarious as the self-centered Lexie who has had almost as many husbands as the number of plastic surgeries she's put herself through to ward off the natural impact of aging. Stephanie Vlasich beautifully portrays the lost soul Jeri Neal, who joined the convent shortly after her swim club days, but finds herself pulled in a different direction when the play begins. As the accident-prone Vernadette, Lisa Farrell has cracker-jack comic timing that gets huge laughs from her many funny lines.
This is an ensemble play with each character getting several solo moments to shine and all five women have beautiful stage presence and a firm hand on these ladies, which breathes a wonderful sense of realism into the endearing characters. From Farrell's perfectly delivered wisecracks to the tender scene in act three between Boston and Olivieri and the funny but energetic performances by Brumfield and Vlasich, all five have a perfectly natural line delivery that makes every laugh and tear ring true.
Collins' direction instills a natural pace in the production that doesn't shortchange the meaningful dramatic moments, ensuring the situations and relationships between the characters come across as grounded in realism. My only slight quibble is that, in the first three scenes, Brumfield appears to be much younger than the majority of the cast. While I understand that not every person ages the same, and it's possible that Sheree was a freshman and the other four were seniors when they met in college, it is a bit of a stretch of the imagination. However, Sheree is supposed to be a health food and exercise nut, so perhaps her healthy lifestyle is the reason she looks so young. Rick Sandifer and Collins' set design makes good use of the small space with an appropriately beachy feel to the furniture and fixtures. Richard "Mickey" Courtney's costumes are character specific. His designs for Olivieri perfectly play up the character's sex appeal while those for Boston are all business and Farrell's are appropriately humorous.
Over the years there have been dozens of works that focus on groups of women facing the dilemmas that life throws their way. When you have a superb cast and confident direction, as in Desert Stages' wonderful production, it doesn't matter if The Dixie Swim Club may not be that original and the characters and situations may seem familiar. Seeing these five excellent actresses depict the lifelong friendships of these five close women will have you laughing and crying as they swim through the ups and downs of life.
The Dixie Swim Club, through August 4, 2019, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, call 480 483-1664 or visit desertstages.org.
Director: KatiBelle Collins