Kryssy Becker as Carnelle in a scene from Miss Firecracker Contest. Courtesy of Tipping Point Theatre
NORTHVILLE- Beth Henley is one of the most masterful writers of her generation. She’s a playwright who is consistently praised for her insight into the female mind and ability to blend comedy and tragedy so smoothly. Oftentimes, audiences tend to leave feeling optimistic or sympathetic toward Henley's characters, despite their questionable or difficult circumstances. We felt it in “Crimes of the Heart” and I felt it watching “The Miss Firecracker Contest” now playing at the Tipping Point Theatre.
Though the title may lead some to be quick to peg this as a feminist play, it’s most certainly not. A story of beauty, passion, empowerment, and homegrown Southern values, “Contest” focuses on a dysfunctional family in Brookhaven, Mississippi during the mid 1980s: a time filled with shaggy hair, thick-rimmed glasses, legwarmers, and glossy outfits. If Colleen Ryan-Peters costume design doesn’t transport you back to this era, I’m not sure what will.
While this show is definitely a family affair, it mainly follows the exploits of the crimson red haired Carnelle (Kryssy Becker embodying the perfect balance of spunk and energy) attempting to thwart her reputation as “Miss Hot Tamale” through entering a local beauty pageant. The kind of small-town tradition that hardly serves a purpose, but it's been around for so long you can’t get rid of it.
And boy does Carnelle want to win that crown.
She’s pulling out all the stops. Even recruiting her eccentric friend Popeye (Maggie Meyer - wonderful as ever) to sew her a slick costume that’ll woo the judges. If that doesn’t work, a heaping array of odd and silly talents might be enough to swoon over potential voters (a fun bit involves Carnelle using household appliances as props to use during the Star Spangled Banner).
Adding to the dynamic are cousin/siblings Elian (Hallie Bee Bard) and Delmount (Patrick Loos) - the former has just left her husband, and the latter has just got back from doing a stint in a mental asylum. These are strange and wildly egotistical personalities that would be quite the undertaking for any performer. Thankfully, Tipping Point has a devoted cast who add depth and charm to Henley’s words. Kudos to dialect coach Melynee Weber-Lynch who helped strengthen and cement the accents throughout the production. You’ll never watch this and think it takes place anywhere other than Mississippi.
Then again, director Dani Cochrane deserves credit for giving the actors solid bits of business while on stage. Whether it’s Elian fanning due to the smoldering mid-summer heat, or Popeye surveying the house with a magnifying glass, “Contest” tends to sparkle with believability. The first act itself is one giant character study and in order for the audience to become invested in the show, the actions of these zany personalities need to feel justified.
Not to mention the fun Bard, Loos, and Meyer are clearly having amping up the scripts enticing plot devices. In particular, the romantic courtship that develops between Delmont and Popeye is a hilarious treat, and the constant chaos, but oftentimes great reward that comes with entering a pageant. Once the second act shifts into gear, it becomes full pedal to the metal carnage as we watch true pandemonium upend the intimate theatre space at the Tipping Point (in which, Bartley Bauer’s exceptionally well dressed set design helps elevate that tension). It’s both refreshing and draining.
At one point, so much is transpiring you won’t know where to look, signifying my only true difficulty with the show: that some of the staging can be obstructed depending on where you sit - I found myself missing key movements and set pieces because of the angles. While it doesn't take away from the final product, I felt some of those moments could have been more accommodating.
Minor criticisms aside, it should be noted that even minor (but just as vital) characters sneak on during the second half of the show to leave an impression. Particularly a hillbilly carnie who goes by Mac Sam (Aaron Kirby) and his punctually obsessive boss Tessy (Shauna Hitchcock). Given their only on stage for about 30 minutes, watching these two work amongst the pageant turmoil is a winning combination.
In essences, “The Miss Firecracker Contest” is an amusing satirical take on the politics of beauty contests in general. In this social climate, that’s something that should be applauded. On the surface, the idea of us laughing at a woman trying desperately to be judged for her talents seems out of touch with society. Carnelle wishes for redemption, and to carve out her identity. And while these characters aren’t, what you’d say, the sharpest tool in the shed, they have a heart and soul worth rooting for, to which Henley and Cochrane pay respect to as artists. “Contest” is never mean-spirited - just a story about always being on the outside looking in, and to then one day, be loved.
Patriotism never looked so good.
IF YOU GO:
The Miss Firecracker Contest continues through October 14th at Tipping Point Theatre in Northville. To purchase tickets you can visit TippingPointTheatre.com or by calling 248-347-0003
All of the above photos courtesy of Tipping Point Theatre