The genre of Southern comedies has become a popular staple for community theaters in this region, and Seeing Stars in Dixie is sure to become a favorite for those who have enjoyed such favorites as Places of the Heart and Steel Magnolias. Set in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1956, the play revolves around a group of five characters in a local tea room who learn that Hollywood producers will be filming Raintree County, billed as the follow-up to Gone with the Wind–and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift–in their town. They contrive competing plots to try to get a role as the local person who will have a small speaking role in the movie.
Clemmie, our protagonist and the owner of Clemmie’s Tea Room, represents an important category of women in mid-twentieth century America. Schoolteachers, widows, small-town entrepreneurial women—these were the proprietresses of tea rooms, a distinctively feminine type of eating establishment that reached its peak in popularity from the 1920s-1940s. They provided a space for women to gather, to enjoy the intimacy and sisterhood of sitting around the kitchen table and sharing news, gossip, and companionship (in what today might be called networking). By setting Seeing Stars in Dixie in a tea room in 1956 Mississippi, Ron Osborne has created a very special place within which the plot, both dramatic and comedic, can unfold–through the needs, desires and longings of a complex set of fascinating characters. Mississippi in the 1950s was the setting for a fading lifestyle of Southern white gentility, certainly, steeped in the romanticism for the Old South represented by Gone with the Wind. Yet juxtaposed upon this romantic masquerade was the harsh reality of deeply engrained prejudices. While issues of race and the looming civil rights movement are not openly discussed in Clemmie’s Tea Room, the atmosphere of prejudice is pervasive and cannot be overlooked. In addition to the mostly unspoken racism, social class differences between the white aristocracy of Marjorie and the worlds of working women like Clemmie are accentuated. Most prominently, the issue of homophobia, and the ugliness associated with reactions to those who are of a different “persuasion,” is foregrounded through the story of Glease.
In Seeing Stars in Dixie, these narrative threads that reflect larger societal issues merge with the classic story of self-realization and personal transformation, on the one hand, as well as a not-so-classic romance on the other. Each character undergoes transformation, but none moreso than Clemmie herself, who begins as a rather mousy and bland woman who fears that her life is passing her by, but who (through the machinations of her friends—and Marjorie) blossoms into a strong, confident woman who appreciates the power of seeking her dreams.
Each character in this show is played masterfully by some of the finest amateur actors in the North Georgia region. Karen Ruetz infuses Clemmie with a vulnerable warmth and tenderness that makes her feel like someone each of us knows and loves. Ginny Slifcak bursts onto the stage as Clemmie’s worldly friend Tootie, a newspaper publisher, with an energy and comedic presence that recalls the physical comedy of Lucille Ball in her prime. Michael Wasson’s Glease is a loveable, complex old-fashioned Southern gentleman with distinctively feminine sensibilities. Meghann Humphreys brings a great deal of physical humor to her role as would-be beauty queen and TV weather reporter Jo Beth, the quintessential southern sorority girl, who coaches Clemmie on how to walk, talk and smile. Tootie, Glease and Jo Beth comprise Team Clemmie, rallying together against star-struck Marjorie, the wickedly conniving, powerhouse grand dame of Natchez society, played with conviction by Teresa Harris, who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.