"The Miss Firecracker Contest" Ashland Stage company, Hanover Arts and Activities Center Through Oct. 31 $15 798-2991 The characters in Beth Henley's play, "The Miss Firecracker Contest" are all tragicomic, Southern Gothic eccentrics Mississippi natives who put frogs in dresses, hear voices through their eyes, and have been known to exclaim "Good Lord and Butter!" Though absurdly unrealistic, folks like these have served as fodder for amusing and insightful works produced by everyone from William Faulkner to filmmaker Robert Altman. The Ashland Stage company production of "Miss Firecracker" is, at least in parts, amusing. An expectation for eccentricity is set at the start of the show when Carnelle Scott (Erin Thomas) storms the stage and breaks into a bizarre pseudo-tap dance to "The Star Spangled Banner." With the introduction of each subsequent character like Carnelle's seamstress friend, Popeye (Jenny Hundley), or ex-convict cousin, Delmount (Doug Jones) additional layers of lunacy are piled on. We find out quickly that each of these troubled souls has set his or her sights on a dream that is either improbable, like the winning of a local beauty contest, or impossible, like relocating to the mythical Elysian Fields. But after a promising beginning, things quickly go awry. The show doesn't know what to do with these characters once they have all been thrown together. The problem lies at least partly in a script that skims along the surface, hinting at bigger issues but never exploring any of them with depth. It is not helped by a rather ramshackle directing job by Staci Robbins. In the second act, the action moves from Carnelle's house to a backstage dressing room at the Miss Firecracker Contest, where Carnelle is one of five finalists. At this point, Robbins substitutes rushing about and yelling for comedy. The set designed by Rich Mason is so indistinct and Robbins' blocking so inconsistent that it's hard to figure out where anything is supposed to be. Is the park bench on stage supposed to be inside or outside Carnelle's dressing room? Are there any walls enclosing this dressing room and, if so, why are actors continually able to walk and see through them? Even as the show sputters to a close, a few sparkling performances invite attention. Hundley can't quite make the one-dimensional character of Popeye believable, but she does give her a sprightly energy and even an understated poignancy. By the show's end, you'll care about Popeye the most. The half-nuts Delmount, plagued by bad dreams and obsessive tendencies, is the show's most interesting character and Jones portrays him with a good balance between madness and wisdom. The original off-Broadway production of "Miss Firecracker" in 1984 launched the career of Holly Hunter who starred as Carnelle. Thomas may not be Hunter but she does capture the spunky desperation that drives her character. While her manic flightiness grows tiresome by the final curtain, she delivers some of the show's loopiest lines with the perfect amount of naive earnestness. Given the title of this play, you might expect an explosion of comic mayhem. Instead, the fuse goes out on "Miss Firecracker" well before the lights go
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