By Jennifer Benfield Johnson
A soulful harmonica playing subtle yearning in complete darkness at the beginning of the play sets the tone of Magnolia Arts Center‘s production of Pamela Parker’s Pulitzer-nominated dramatic comedy, Second Samuel, directed by Pitt County local Kevin Lee.
A startling secret just discovered after the death of the town’s beloved Miss Gertrude causes upheaval in the lives of the citizens and amplifies their clashing personalities and opinions. Set in Second Samuel, Georgia, in 1949, the play opens with the stage divided into three parts serving both to divide the male and female perspectives of the townspeople and to emphasize their similarities.
On the left is the local Bait and Brew where the menfolk sit with beer and talk about the day’s events amidst old-fashioned product advertisements and fishing tackle hanging on the walls and glass bottles lining the wooden floor where Frisky, the bar owner played by John Kabakijan, gives brilliant homage to classic film stars of yesteryear with his pencil-thin mustache and almost vaudevillian mannerisms. Here, Allen Andrews’ rugged paint-splattered Mansel and Bill Pratt’s hysterics as the undertaker called June Cline contribute to the play’s more comical moments, while Ja’maul Johnson’s passionate portrayal of his character U.S., who is, in many ways, an outsider in this predominantly white town, is powerful and heartfelt.
On the right, a pink haze of floral hats and well-groomed wigs sets the scene, busy with ladies getting their hair done and gossiping about everyone else’s business, at the Change Your Life Hair and Beauty Emporium. An outstanding performance by Cam Scales brings natural southern flavor and a vivacious personality to the stage as Omaha. Nanette Ryan dominates the stage in her expressive portrayal of long-time salon patron, Marcela. Lauren Melton Lewis plays mild-mannered Ruby, a foil to nasty-tempered Jimmy Deanne, played by Cindy Quinn, who later inspires cast and audience alike with a song.
In the middle of the stage sits a charming front porch with a tree stump out front where a caring young man with a learning disability named B-flat, played impeccably by Duane Rhodes. B-flat gives the audience a simple yet humorous introduction to the town and intermittently shares his honest perspective on human behavior and prejudices throughout the play.
Homey and pleasant with period appropriate antiques, the set, designed by Rick Croskery, who also plays the town’s well-respected doctor, takes the audience back to the 1940’s post-Depression era with its slowly evolving social dynamics. Adding to the authentic atmosphere is lighting design by Steve Harding, who also plays crotchety Mr. Mozel.
The talented cast and crew received a well-deserved standing ovation on opening night for bringing to life this town on the cusp of change dealing with issues of race, gender, disabilities and conformity.
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