Southern Charm 

Theater Review: A funny local script makes “Charitable Sisterhood” a surprising treat.

click to enlarge Actors Donna Marie Miller, Jan Guarino, Debra Wagoner, Louise Keeton and Cathy Shaffner do a nice job as Southern women playing off each through a sharp comedic script written by Bo Wilson and directed by Bruce Miller.

Jay Paul

Actors Donna Marie Miller, Jan Guarino, Debra Wagoner, Louise Keeton and Cathy Shaffner do a nice job as Southern women playing off each through a sharp comedic script written by Bo Wilson and directed by Bruce Miller.

I must confess: I went into “The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church” thinking I wouldn’t like it.

I’m of the belief that a critic should walk into every show with a blank slate, simply evaluating each performance on its merits to provide an informed opinion. Still, I couldn’t shake my prejudice, and it had everything to do with the play being a locally produced world premiere.

In my experience, these shows often are staged prematurely, forcing the audience to sit through extraneous dialogue and side plots that go nowhere. But I’m pleased to report that my apprehension was unfounded.

Written by Bo Wilson and directed by Bruce Miller, “Charitable Sisterhood” focuses on five women in the South discussing matters of life and love. If this set-up sounds familiar (“Steel Magnolias,” “The Dixie Swim Club,” “The Golden Girls,” etc.) it should, but Wilson uses this formulaic exposition to take the audience into some fun and curious territory.

After a heavy rainstorm washes out bridges and closes roads, the women of the Charitable Sisterhood are trapped in their church basement while working on a charity drive. From the outset, the new Yankee Tina (Jan Guarino) and domineering Bea (Catherine Shaffner) butt heads. But their difference in charity-drive styles soon takes a backseat to the surprise appearance of a stranger.

On the lam from unspecified troubles, Riley (Louise Keeton) begs the sisterhood to let her help with the drive in return for food and shelter. The character’s appearance shifts the play into a mystery of sorts, and it’s here that it starts to get interesting. Rounded out by overworked mother Lorraine (Debra Wagoner) and the brassy Janet (Donna Marie Miller), the five characters play naturally off each other.

In writing the script, Wilson had Guarino, Shaffner and Wagoner in mind for the roles they play, and the trio forms the comedic backbone of the show. Shaffner’s larger-than-life persona commands the stage like it did in “Steel Magnolias” last year. Keeton is appropriately forlorn as Riley, and Miller is sauce and snark when called upon to be.

But it’s Wilson’s script that’s the real star, humorously getting the audience’s attention and hitting a nice dramatic moment or two. The play’s a little slow getting started, and some of the dialogue could be trimmed — the hospital sex gag starts wearing thin on its third or fourth variation. But the script largely is a success, and it’s just different enough to keep the audience intrigued.

Bruce Miller’s direction brings the show a perfect sense of comedic timing, and Terrie Powers’ set looks the part of a church basement.

The setup might be formulaic, but the surprisingly good script and direction make “Charitable Sisterhood” a fun night of theater. S

Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church” plays through Aug. 24 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road. Tickets are $36. For information and tickets call 282-2620 or visit va-rep.org.

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