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CULTURE | Vol. 8, No. 23, June 7, 2007
(Shauna's Story of Slavery)

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Fascinating Four

by Beege Welborn

Script Inspired by Actors Rings True

What: "Four Women Only"
Where: Loblolly Theater, 1010 N. 12th Ave., above Madison's Diner
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 8-10, 15-16, 21-23, 3 p.m. June 17
Cost: $9
Details: 439-3010

Look no further than our own Loblolly Theatre for an intimate, outside-the-box experience in our neck o' the woods. Tucked into a second floor corner of the old Sacred Heart building on 12th Avenue, this talented troupe of playwrights and players approaches things from a different angle, as I found out after attending a performance of their latest effort, "Four Women Only."

Author and director Yolanda Reed explained Loblolly's philosophy to me Saturday evening: "We cast the play and then we write it."

The way it works is pretty fascinating.

Set in the basement of a homemaker named Stephanie (Mary Steele), "Four Women Only" tells the story of four neighbors who have started a self-actualization group. They've lived and interacted with each other for over a decade, consider themselves good friends and have decided to discuss women's issues in an exclusively female setting.

Stephanie has moved all her husband's flotsam and jetsam against the wall, stocked the little fridge and liquor cabinet and put flowers on the table with pens and paper for noting agenda items. She seems well-satisfied in the feminine corner she's managed to create out of a house overrun with testosterone. Her neighbors—Beryl, a lawyer and Roo, the corporate efficiency expert—come down the basement stairs ready to explore their inner, feminist selves while designating their occupations off-limits.

They're waiting on Sally, the last member of their group, when Stephanie tells them she's left a message on the answering machine and won't be coming. Sally never does appear, but she causes a huge uproar by sending her husband, Jim James, in her stead. The three females are aghast at this intrusion. James is befuddled by women and can only repeat that he wanted to come.

There is an absolutely sparkling bit of dialogue and staging at this point. The characters are all talking to each other, over each other, across each other—all the while settling into the personalities that will clash and comfort during the two acts. Speaking with Reed about this introductory scene, you get a sense of how challenging a Loblolly production is to bring to fruition.

After casting, she started off with 10 sparse pages of dialogue written "like a musical score" and pulled out a script binder to demonstrate.

"You'll see the characters' dialogue runs across, instead of individually down the page," she says. "So, when this one is talking here and you see dialogue for another on the same horizontal line, it means they're also speaking but listening for cues at the same time. It's so difficult and they do it so well." 

It also helps that the actors are seasoned veterans of the Loblolly way. The luminous Patricia Simmons, as Roo, is in her 51st production for the theatre. She laughs when she describes the first time she auditioned for Reed. 

"It was years ago, at UWF," she says. "I came to the audition, read four or five pages of Noel Coward dialogue and then she took the script from me and said 'Now go do it!' Go? Just like that? I thought 'I can't do this!'"

Now, she says she can't imagine doing it any other way. They never have dry rehearsals—reading parts across a conference table at each other—as most traditional theatre groups do. They are acting and blocking from the moment they pick up the initial pages, continuing as the play is built around them and for them.

It makes for an ensemble that is comfortable in their roles and assured in their movements onstage. Steele is a neon-redheaded firecracker as Stephanie. Barrister Beryl (played by real-life math teacher Mary Benson) is a precision instrument with her crisp, interrogating speech and lawyerly feints.

Jason Lewing as the absent Sally's goofy, confused, interloping husband morphs into the conduit for more discussion than these friends had counted on when they find out maybe they don't really know each other so well.

And then there's Simmons as the droll, sharp-witted Roosevelt who floats serenely through the chaos erupting around her right up to where she drops some bombshells of her own. These good friends and longtime neighbors really hadn't the faintest clue to begin with.

The language is tart and mature at times, though well-seasoned with humorous moments. And honestly, while the premise will not appeal to every one, there are some master craftsmen at work on that tiny stage. The 40 folks who can fit in the audience—many of them die-hard Loblolly fans—can be assured of an earnest evening's work as Reed's artful script comes to vivid life.