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Theater review: The Miss Firecracker Contest 

Winning play is true to the red, glitter and blue

Carnelle Scott isn't about high morals, refined manners or good taste. Neither is playwright Beth Henley, who created the lovably gawky and declasse heroine of The Miss Firecracker Contest. The difference is that Henley knows about these things, making Carnelle, her family and her friends a whole lot of fun to watch as they blunder through what promises to be the latest — and greatest — fiasco of her life.

Anyone familiar with Henley's most decorated work, Crimes of the Heart, will not feel disoriented at Theatre Charlotte when the lights go up on Act 1 in Carnelle's Mississippi parlor. Scenic designer James Edward Burns retains the basic floor plan we saw at the Queens Road barn earlier this season for Arsenic and Old Lace, discarding the cellar door, de-emphasizing the staircase and generally brightening the place that Carnelle, by default, has taken over from her bizarre dead aunt.

But remember that Carnelle dreams of winning her town's 4th of July beauty pageant and erasing the sniggering title of "Miss Hot Tamale" that her past indiscretions have earned her. So Henley delights in transporting us to the seedy site where such silly dreams come true, backstage in one of the dressing rooms at the local assembly hall where Carnelle changes costumes for the various segments of the contest. Burns' ramshackle Act 2 set manages to be every bit as seedy as the one that graced the low-budget effort by Off-Tryon Theatre in 2002.

All was seedy back then, playing havoc with the delicate balance of Henley's ambivalence. Tonya Bludsworth directs with a keen sense of Henley's conflicted attitude toward Southern grace and American materialism, but she sees to it that we empathize more fully with the playwright's Deep South menagerie for reasons that go beyond their sunnier, more elegant surroundings.

Henley lovingly collects eccentricities with each new person we see, and Bludsworth isn't above adding one or two of her own. Watching Carnelle rehearse her talent presentation to the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner," we can only hope that pageant judges won't be laughing as hard as we are. The seamstress who comes to the rescue, Popeye Jackson, looks even less stylish than Carnelle, doomed to dowdiness in Lena Olson's nicely gauged costume design scheme. Poor Popeye is so nearsighted, she needs a filmmaker's loupe to read the numbers on her measuring tape, a wonderful shtick as she goes about her tailoring.

Orphaned at an early age, Carnelle lived most of her childhood with cousins Elain and Delmount, whose attitude toward the interloper has always been a complex brew of loving protectiveness diluted with arrogant superiority. Elain arrives first, the winner of Miss Firecracker honors at the age of 17, and a somewhat poignant example of where the magic carpet ride that Carnelle wishes to hop aboard actually leads to. She happens to be fleeing from that happy ending, bored with her adoring husband and outraged by motherhood — while fatally addicted to her hoity-toity lifestyle.

Disheveled, dynamic and unpredictable Delmount arrives next. For reasons that he never articulates — although its effect upon his sister could be near the top of his list — Delmount disdains the Miss Firecracker contest. Yet he is obsessed with beauty and sex. Delmount hasn't always been discreet or discriminating about where he finds his, so he has been obliged to spend some time in a sanitarium in a plea-bargaining deal that helped him avoid a more extended prison sentence.

Delmount's incarceration could have been further abbreviated if Elain had condescended to welcome him into her posh home, a source of lingering friction between the siblings. His arrival unsettles his sister, but that is merely the beginning of the disturbances he conjures up. The rascal plans to sell the house from under Carnelle's feet, and he is instantly the object of Popeye's lovesick adoration.

Glynnis O'Donoghue gives us all the ungainliness and immaturity we could wish for from Carnelle and more, going slightly over the top with her distress as the call notifying her that she is a pageant finalist is more and more delayed in coming. O'Donoghue makes Carnelle's other lows pouty and cute, not quite as funny as her silly, giddy highs — and she does seem to have genuine affection for her cousins before she sprouts a backbone and lights into them.

Drawing more of our understanding and radiating less spitefulness than the 2002 edition, Michelle Fleshman's more balanced take on Elain is probably the biggest reason why Theatre Charlotte's Firecracker seems more centered on a real family than the seedy sideshow distortion Off-Tryon gave us. She is honestly stung, even chastised by the rebukes that come from Delmount and Carnelle, not merely wounded, and that makes a difference.

Amy Wada makes Popeye as much Carnelle's soulmate as Delmount's. Even gawkier than O'Donoghue, Wada goes equally overboard in her stalking of Delmount and in her devastation when she feels certain she has ruined her chances. We believe beyond a doubt that these are Popeye's first pangs of love, and her shyness when Delmount finally begins to respond in Act 2 is precious.

Berry Newkirk has a gallery full of twisted characters he has played in the recent past, beginning with his debut in Reservoir Dogs that keynoted his triumph as CL's Newcomer of the Year for 2010. Here his Delmount is a seething volcano of volatility before he is ultimately becalmed. Until then, the brilliant ironic fire in his eyes puts me in mind of another fine Charlotte actor, Graham Smith, as he rounded into mid-career.

Adjourning to the seedy backstage where most of the Act 2 action unfolds, we encounter two new eccentrics. First, there's the pageant stage manager, whistle-blowing Tessy Mahoney, who just happens to be the prime reason Delmount ran afoul of the law. Elise DuQuette absolutely drools forgiveness and lust in the role. Then there's Mac Sam, who picked up a case of VD from Carnelle in the wild days before her reformation. With a heart full of love — and a hand full of balloons — Matt Webster gives the aging coot just the right blend of cheery fatalism and coughing decrepitude.

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