by Meghan D'Souza
Amana - Remember The Golden Girls? Blanche's southern accent, the ladies bonding around the kitchen table, explosive fights and great shows of affection. Iowa Theatre Artists' production of A Southern Exposure reminded me of my favorite parts of The Golden Girls, only more somber. It is a serious play with witty lines in the right places. Three elderly sisters face the difficulties of aging together while one in particular, Hattie (Cherryl Moon Thomason), focuses most of her energy on her 24-year-old granddaughter Callie Belle (Kimberly Braun). She raised her since she was a toddler and the two have a strong bond that the actresses convey believably right from the beginning. Even their arguments expose an element of underlying love and they behave with similar mannerisms, they way close relatives tend to do.
These actresses along with Meg Merkens and Marty Norton as Hattie's sisters made this an all-star cast. Merkens is able to mold herself into any role, from Cher to this small-town Kentucky-raised elderly lady. This was my first time witnessing Norton's talent and I'm glad I had the honor. Her character, Mattie, is struggling with the beginnings of dementia and Norton's soft voice and innocent face provided a heart-wrenching performance while providing laughs in an appropriate manner, as well. As a woman in my 20s, I found Braun's character incredibly relatable, as she makes decisions against her grandmother's judgment.
Director Michael Petkewec made great decisions which really bring the audience into the play, regarding the set, blocking and lighting. As soon as the audience looked at the set, if they did not have any background on the play, it was obvious that it took place in an older woman's home. The kitchen took up a bulk of the set, with a real refrigerator that was filled with items. Running beside the fridge was a mustard-colored counter with a sink, coffee maker with liquid in it, decorate tins and towels and a cookie jar. The columns arrange to give an idea of walls were painted a mustard color and lined with floral wallpaper. That, combined with the furniture simply felt like many grandmother's homes that I've visited. On a platform to the right of the stage was Hattie's bedroom, again decorated the way you'd expect a simple older lady's room to be decorated, with a quilt on the bed, mismatched pillows, and wooden furniture. Set inconspicuously in black above the kitchen was a small room of a New York City apartment. This was cleverly used and unnoticed when the rest of the set was in use.
The lighting was used to either to highlight characters separately when they were intended to be in different cities, highlight one room so the audience focused on the current setting, or was dimmed to enhance the doleful mood. The costumes were wisely used and changed often to give the audience a sense of passing time. Also exhibiting a sense of a change of seasons, the set changed only slightly, with decorations hung during character interactions.
Because the set and lighting worked so well, it invited the audience into the story, allowing us to become emotionally involved with the characters. Watching Hattie and Callie Belle made me miss my mother who only lives an hour away. Their strong relationship echoes our own. Watching Mattie made my heart ache for my grandmother, who exhibits the same problems that Norton so perfectly displayed.
Go to the play with someone you love, be prepared to laugh, but bring tissues. Everyone around me was crying at some point in the play, but left with warm thoughts about family and unconditional love.