Experiencing Beth Henley's "The Miss Firecracker Contest" at the Newport Theatre Arts Center is a little like having your first mint julep--it may seem fresh and unusual at the start, but after awhile you realize it's a pretty showy drink without much bite.
Henley--best known for "Crimes of the Heart," the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama that was made into a movie last year--has peopled "Miss Firecracker" (1984) with her standard assortment of eccentric Dixie characters. There's a wilted flower of a Southern belle obsessed with her glory days, and there's her squirrelly (but terribly romantic) brother. And then there's Carnelle, the goofy, semi-literate heroine with a messy past (the boys call her "Miss Hot Tamale" because she used to date a lot) who thinks she can get even with the sniggering town by winning the local beauty contest. But this is a town without pity (look, ma, some pathos!) that just can't forget her bad-girl days.
These folks are fairly interesting early on, and the first act, although uneven, does offer a few surprises. But by the time the intermission comes around, most of the edge is gone, and the characters, despite all the frantic goings-on, don't really seem to be going anywhere.
For instance, we're introduced to Elain (Cindy Hanks), who has left her husband and returned to the homestead (now run by cousin Carnelle) to regroup. But Henley leaves it at that; we never learn much about this mysterious hubby or whether there's a chance for a reconciliation. What's the point of this subplot?
And what about brother Delmont (R. Michael Greer)? First presented as an erotic, even scary presence, he turns out to be little more than a cipher, a character with no clear reason for being in the play. His relationship with the hopelessly nerdy Popeye (Lynn Capri) is both unbelievable and superfluous. Henley obviously is saying that love makes for unlikely bedfellows, but in this sensationalistic context it seems absurdly overstated.
The story is, after all, about Carnelle and her chicken-fried aspirations. The focus on that, however, is blurred by these unresolved and unnecessary sidelights.
The acting is competent but generally not assured enough to push "Miss Firecracker" beyond its limitations. Even the best actors probably couldn't do that.
Amy Larson as Carnelle offers the most vivid performance. She correctly emphasizes Carnelle's vulnerability and wide-eyed loopiness. There are moments when you really feel for this sweet-souled nitwit. But Larson's characterization is ultimately one-dimensional--it doesn't lack conviction, only depth.
As Elain, Hanks comes off the best. She does a pretty good job portraying the former beauty queen who seems ready to succumb to "the vapors" at any moment. In contrast, Greer appears unsure about what Delmont is supposed to be; consequently, the character veers jerkily from alley cat to pussycat.
No complaints, though, about the sets (a group effort), which include a peculiar living room that tells quite a bit about Carnelle's personality. Robert Sternberg's lighting is also right on, especially when it suggests fireworks exploding over the carnival grounds near the play's end.
"The Miss Firecracker Contest" runs through April 12 at the Newport Theatre Arts Center at 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Information: (714) 631-0288.