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Open: 03/19/09- Close: 04/12/09 Belles
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Ashley Griffin
Christian DeAngelis ©2019  Kristi McCarson, Rebecca Lovett

If Steel Magnolias had taken place when the older characters were in their twenties and thirties, instead of their forties through sixties, you might have something akin to Belles. Like the aforementioned film, Belles is full of southern charm, and female angst, and, though it is a bit uneven, makes for a fun night at the theater.

Belles: a play in two acts and forty-five phone calls tells the story of the Walker sisters. Born and raised in Memphis, they now live in six different US cities and communicate solely by phone. The eldest, Peggy, who remained with Mama in Tennessee, calls her siblings when their mother is hospitalized – nothing serious, she just ate some bad tuna – but the phone calls lead to often comedic and sometimes brutal confrontations about the past and the present.

Christian DeAngelis ©2019  Laura Faith

The Walker sisters are all characters, in the kookiest sense of the word. Peggy (Rebecca Lovett) is almost a hypochondriac when it comes to the health of those she cares about. Aneece (Ashton Heyl) is an anti-social workaholic, Roseanne (Kristi McCarson) is a tough, but gentle Preacher’s wife, Audrey (Kelly Strandemo) is a ventriloquist who treats her dummy as her child, and has yet to grow out of frilly pink dresses and hair bows (even though she has been married for seven years), Dust (Christina Shipp) is a post modern hippie child who does yoga in her living room, sleeps with any man who crosses her path, and changes her name on a daily basis, and Paige (Laura Faith), the baby of the family who never makes it to a second date with a guy because no one can live up to her high expectations. As whimsical as these characters are, it is not their quirks, but WHY they have those quirks that is gripping, and enchanting. The unevenness of the show is primarily due to just that. The first act is entirely devoted to getting to know these kooky beings. The second act is almost an entirely different play as it reveals the details behind the sister’s upbringing, and how each of their idiosyncrasies are a direct result of how they cope with what happened to them as children.

Christian DeAngelis ©2019  Rebecca Lovett, Kelly Strandemo

The play’s unevenness however extended to the cast, and creative team. Most of the actresses seemed to get caught in playing the archetypal quirks of their character, instead of the character itself. The notable exception was Ashton Heyl as Aneece, who I honestly believed was a living, breathing person. Christina Shipp as Dust found some lovely moments, and it was easy to believe that this girl was just born marching to the beat of her own drummer. Kelly Strandemo as Audrey seemed a bit of a stock character in the first act, but did a 180-degree turn in the second and transformed into one of the most compelling characters. Perhaps the best scene in the play was her conversation with Aneece where, sitting in the bathtub she truly seemed like a frightened little girl, who, though she grew up, had never truly combated her childhood demons. This was enhanced by the brilliant, and heart wrenching acting of Ashton Heyl. Kristi McCarson really came to life as Roseanne during the final scene of the first act where she destroyed the condiments in her kitchen in a heartbreaking fantasized conversation with her sisters, and continued to have beautiful moments, though her performance felt slightly restrained. Rebecca Lovett had some nice moments, but rushed through her beats, and seemed somehow to have placed a judgment on her character that affected her performance. Laura Faith also had nice moments, and did an especially good job at conveying her role as the baby of the family, but never came as vividly to life as some of the other characters. The accents especially seemed to be hindering rather than helping the actresses’ performances. Special props however have to go to Sean who, though only a voice on an answering machine, was one of the best actors present.

 The direction was uneven as well. The way Marisa Viola use a single house set to convey all the homes of each of the sisters was inspired and it at once emphasized the tragedy of the sister’s separation, and emphasized their bond. It was almost as if they were all really in the same space, or even ghosts in the other’s space, and just didn’t realize it.  The actual direction of the actors seemed a bit restrained, however (this was only aided by the fact that, because all the dialogue took place over phone calls there was never any face to face confrontation). Also many important stage directions in the script seemed to be ignored.

The lighting by Jessica Greenberg was always about three seconds ahead of, or behind the actors. The set by Jonathan W. Collins was lovely, and reminiscent of the set for the recent Playwright’s Horizon’s production Memory House. The costumes by Emily DeAngelis were fantastic.

What makes Belles especially poignant is the mission of Heiress Productions, which seeks to pair theater with cancer awareness. Although Belles does not seriously, or directly deal with cancer, the effects of a crippling illness and its effects on a family are all to clear. For that, and for a lovely evening at the theater, I applaud Heiress Productions. 

Venue:
Lion Theatre @ Theatre Row : 410 West 42nd Street