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Exploring the role of the casserole

By Lisa A. DuBois

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  No single object holds more weight in polite Southern society than the casserole. Every momentous occasion, whether joyful or grief-stricken, sends well-bred women scurrying to the kitchen to whip up a dish full of macaroni and cheese, chicken and rice, beef and noodles, or sweet potatoes and marshmallows. In fact, if it weren't for births, weddings, and funerals, miniature marshmallows would be extinct.

In The Widow's Best Friend, Alabama playwright Randy Hall pays tribute to the stringent mores and unwritten laws that constrict Southerners as tightly as a congealed salad. The play opens in the home of Cornelia and Hoyt Dupree in the small town of Persepolis, or "Percy," Ala., a fictional locale loosely based on the town of Anniston, where Hall grew up. As the show begins, word has just hit the wire that Hoyt is dead of a sudden heart attack, and Cornelia is so distraught that she has locked herself in her bedroom and refuses to come out. In staggered intervals, all of Cornelia's "best friends," bearing casseroles fresh out of the oven and freezer, burst into her home like mine-sweepers locked on a mission of helpfulness.

"In a small town there's great pressure to get along. And not to get along is to declare war," the playwright explains. "Several of these ladies really don't like each other, but they are under immense pressure to get along. And that can be very funny."

Hall, in fact, based the characters on the women he knew and loved as a child. "Initially, I wanted to do a number on sweet Southern ladies," he says. "But I changed my mind as I came to realize that these women are the caretakers in our society. I started off thinking I'd skewer some of their silliness, and I wound up with a lot of respect for them because they are the ones who carry the burdens."

The burdens they bear are often tragedies of the highest magnitude--cheating husbands, wayward children, alcoholic relatives, mental illnesses--yet they keep plugging along, pausing periodically to laugh or cry at life's absurdities and then charging off to the next charitable function.

Director Brenda Sparks has assembled a superlative cast for this production of Widow's Best Friend. Carol Ponder is Penny Smothers, a displaced Northerner who has married well but still doesn't quite fit into Percy's upper social echelons; after all these years, she has yet to figure out how to make a decent covered-dish entree. Cinda McCain portrays Inez Medders, who races to every local catastrophe so that she can take charge of matters and drive everyone crazy. Glory Kissel is sweet, daffy Geneva Quimby, who has made a "separate peace" with the vagaries of her life.

Jan Dial plays the tough-skinned retired newspaper columnist Martha Dick Triplett, who shows up at Cornelia's with party mints and potato chips, informing her aghast comrades, "The dead don't care, the family itn't hungry, 'n' nobody feels like eatin' warmed-over casserole in the middle of the afternoon!" Mary Tanner plays the young socialite divorcee Janet Price Savage, who has counted on the Dupree family ever since Cornelia was the den mother for their Girl Scout troupe. Finally, Bobby Wyckoff is the show's solitary male figure, Tommy Blankenship, a cub reporter sent innocently into the fray to gather information so he can write Hoyt's obituary.

With Cornelia acting so stubborn and not behaving like a proper widow, the ladies turn to their only captive audience, slamming him with food and affection. The reporter winds up discovering more about all of them than he ever intended or wanted to know. "Tommy is like Daniel being thrown into the lions' den," Hall says. "He is the norm through which everything else is measured. But he also goes through the process [of self-discovery]."

The Darkhorse Theater is located near Sullivan's Grocery, a Nashville landmark that's closing because its proprietress, Louisa Sullivan, has been ill. The Sullivans have provided most of the furnishings for the set, from the crocheted dolls used to cover air fresheners, to the sunburst wall clock, to the huge console TV. Mikael Byrd is the set designer.

"I think it's so cool that the house is being furnished by a woman, inches from the Darkhorse, who could be one of the women in the show," Sparks says. The transplanted-Yankee director observes, "Down South, everybody has stories to tell and continues to tell them. The wonderful thing about this script is that Hall's observation and inclusion of rituals isn't an indictment. We're not mocking these people, this isn't a glib send-up of Southern life; it's an honest appraisal that gives us a little space to laugh because we know it so well."

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