Having been born in Virginia and raised to the best of my parents’ ability as a Southern gentleman, I understand a little about the funny ways of those who reside below the Mason-Dixon line. For example, Southern culture attaches pride to being able to maintain a refined outward appearance that more often than not disguises all the mayhem and misdeeds that lie beneath the surface. Good manners and etiquette come before everything else—except, maybe, a cool alcoholic beverage—even when stuck in awkward situations or in the company of those we don’t particularly care for. Maintaining such manners is a tightrope walk that produces its share of colorful characters who are better or worse at the social nuances than others, and always makes for good gossip at cocktail parties, especially when the facades start to fray.
The Debutante Ball, the University of Montana Drama/Dance Department’s current production, wallows in the disintegrating social structure of a Mississippi family whose facade isn’t just fraying, it’s rubbed downright raw. Jen Dugan Parker Turner is recently remarried to a fat and happy lawyer, Hank Turner, whom she met while serving a prison sentence for allegedly killing her last husband. The murder dominated headlines in the small town of Hattiesburg—where the rumor mill is fully functional—and Jen is blindly convinced that her youngest daughter’s upcoming debutante ball will be the sort of transcendent event that projects her family anew and puts its ugly past behind them. The only problem is that the belle of the ball, the fidgety and juvenile Teddy, doesn’t appear to be up to the task of carrying her big night. She’s haunted by memories of her daddy’s death and burdened by a dark secret—she’s been knocked up—that, if revealed, would surely torpedo any efforts to put the family back in Hattiesburg’s good graces. Then there’s the rest of the clan, each with his or her own baggage, resurfacing for the event and doing their best to put on a good face in honor of Teddy: Bliss, Jen’s illegitimate first daughter, a vain pill-popping “Southern strumpet whore”; Jen’s smarmy priss of a nephew, Brighton, who’s distanced himself since the murder; and the deaf farm girl from Hank’s side of the family, Frances, who drinks like Judge Jeff Langton at happy hour. There’s hardly a redeemable character in the bunch, but at least initially they each try their best to put on their best behavior.
The play, written by Mississippi native Beth Henley (who also wrote Crimes of the Heart, as well as True Stories with David Byrne of Talking Heads) is billed as a dramatic comedy, but this production is much more dark than funny. The laughs come easily early on, as the cast mixes like oil and water, still grasping for the edges of their Southern charm. By the end of the first act, however, the gloves are off and the fighting inside the Turner mansion has turned wicked. Almost everyone’s already drunk, Teddy’s pregnancy is revealed and Jen, the mother, is coming undone quicker than Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch.
Up until this point, director Paige Williams’ Ball is a delicious mess, but the second act suddenly devolves into a plodding assembly line of arguments and asides. Each subsequent scene looks the same: two characters, center stage, bicker and yell, state their cases and storm off, followed by another pair doing the same. Too often the stage is left bare while the audience waits for the next two to have it out, or maybe for a lone character to do something like make a phone call, and Lesley Washburn’s well-designed, sectioned set—the space fully utilized until now—becomes unnecessary. The pacing is lost, any humor sucked out and the drama turns static and stale. The setup of the first act promises that all hell is going to break loose, and technically it does, just one slow-burning ember at a time.
The disappointments of the second act undermine otherwise fine performances from many of the leads. Robin Lindsay Rose is frightening as the obsessive mother Jen, gorgeous in her lilac evening gown even as she tears into everyone around her; she’s so convincingly maniacal you half expect her to scream “No more wire hangers!” at any time. Nora Mundé Gustuson is equally excellent as the unsure Teddy, her mannerisms perfect for a teenager lacking confidence and hiding secrets. Amber Rose Mason’s Bliss and Mike Boire’s Hank are also notable, especially the latter, who grows more and more likeable with his drunken Albert Finney-meets-Ralph Kramden persona. It’s a talented cast, stuck spinning its wheels through the last hour of the play.
The unhealthy dynamics of the Turner family should make fine fodder for gabbing around the wet bar, but The Debutante Ball never fully gets there. We never quite care enough for the characters to feel for their demise and we rarely get a chance to laugh at their self-deprecation; a good Southern gentleman would just as soon move politely on to more entertaining gossip material.
The Debutante Ball runs in the Montana Theatre in UM’s PAR/TV building Tuesday, April 4 through Friday, April 7, at 7:30 PM, with a matinee Saturday, April 8, at 2 PM. Call 243-4581 for tickets.