Southern–fried whimsy and eccentric characters are the stock–in–trade of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Beth Henley, whose Impossible Marriage is onstage at the Lucas Theatre this weekend.
The SCAD production is directed by Sharon Ott, who won an Obie Award before arriving in Savannah to teach the theatrical arts in Savannah in 2007.
Ott was Artistic Director at California’s Berkeley Rep for 13 years, and during her tenure there, the company was awarded the Regional Theatre Tony Award for Excellence.
She and Henley became fast friends during a production of another of the Mississippi–born playwright’s works.
“I’m in the lucky position of starting my career by directing Beth Henley when she was in the room,” Ott says. “I fell in love with her a lot because she’s such a lively and interesting, quirky person. She’s sort of similar to a lot of her characters. Her sense of humor is quite similar to Floral, the lead character in Impossible Marriage.”
Henley won the P–prize for Crimes of the Heart, the story of three Southern sisters dealing – in their own disparate ways – with joy and heartbreak. Her plays are also very, very funny.
“I think directors love her because she’s one of those people who doesn’t write a bad character,” explains Ott. “All of her plays have a very ensemble feel – everyone who’s out there onstage is wonderful and interesting. Which is a rare gift. A lot of playwrights write great lead characters, and there are always a couple of supporting characters who are just sort of there.”
Impossible Marriage – which happens to be set in Savannah – is about family matriarch Kandall Kingsley, whose daughter Pandora is about to wed a an older artist – “with vaguely Eastern European lineage” – named Edward Lunt.
Pandora’s pregnant older sister, Floral, is determined to undermine the marriage.
“Beth really hears the whole world in her plays,” Ott observes, “so she gets these very interesting types of people, most of whom are in some sort of crisis. At least three–quarters of the people on the stage have something major going on.
”And then she ramps up the situation to this great place where there’s always a kind of wild, comic, slightly grotesquely funny climax.”
Ott believes that Beth Henley is in a unique position to make her Southern stories and offbeat characters true to life.
“She grew up in a quirky, interesting family, and lots of people around her were that way,” says the director. “And I think she wrote about what she knew.”
Getting the Savannah dialect just right was one of Ott’s primary tasks for her Impossible Marriage cast.
“We’ve used some locals as our dialect ‘first responders,’” she laughs. “Just talking to those folks, there’s a kind of wonderful quirkiness that is more found in Southern culture, one could generalize and say, than in Yankee culture or West Coast culture. It’s a particular form of quirkiness that’s often kind of family–based.”
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. May 13–15, 3 p.m. May 16
Tickets: $15 general admission; $10 seniors, military and students; $5 with a valid SCAD ID; and free with valid SCAD ID on Thursday, May 13 only