ROSWELL, Ga. – In a special kickoff to the New Year, Georgia Ensemble Theatre debuts an original play by acclaimed Atlanta playwright Topher Payne. It has all the ingredients of a whodunit: a young and rich heir, his older gold-digger singer/actress wife, the aristocratic and decidedly mortified family matriarch. Throw in a body, an eccentric Shakespearean acting coach and a gothic mansion.
Add to that the play is based on the true story of the scion of wealthy tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds and is set in the Deep South city of Winston-Salem, N.C. Despite, or because of all that, it is a comedy.
Playing through Jan. 27, “Swell Party” is the sort of black comedy perhaps only someone as sensitive to the Southern heartbeat as Payne could create. Commissioned by Georgia Ensemble’s artistic director Robert Farley, it is a bold statement by Farley and GET that the regional theater now in its 20th season is taking a step up.
“We have reached a point of financial stability that we can now present one original play or musical each season,” Farley said.
Farley and Payne first met when GET produced Payne’s “Tokens of Affection” last year. Farley was so taken with Payne’s work that he met with Payne to commission GET’s first original play.
The stars must have been in alignment, because Payne’s play – in the hands of veteran GET actress/director Shannon Eubanks and an impeccable cast of GET regulars plus some amazing newcomers – creates a rollicking two hours and 28 minutes of fun that not only tickles but provokes. Payne’s script walks a tightrope with scaldingly witty dialogue that in the end must reconcile to the truth of a party that took place over the Fourth of July weekend 1932 at the Reynolds House in Winston-Salem that left a body and a cloud of suspicion these past 80 years.
But as Payne points out, “For Southerners, the truth is not nearly as important as a good story.”
And what tellers “Swell Party” has to give life to Payne’s words. Jo Howarth plays the dowager Aunt Kate who runs the family estate and its fortune. Kate is shocked and suspicious of the new bride her nephew, 20-year-old Smith Reynolds (Weston Manders), has brought home – an actress named Libby Holman (Suehyla El-Attar) 12 years his senior whom he pursued after seeing her performance in a play.
Howarth brings just the right touch of protectiveness to the family’s reputation wrapped in her love of the son she never had.
Two familiar faces at GET are Scott DePoy and Tess Malis Kincaid. DePoy is Erle McMichael, the county solicitor and longtime family friend Aunt Kate enlists to find out what happened in the shooting that weekend. In a “Roshomon”-like investigation, the events are recreated for him and the audience.
Kincaid plays Blanche Yurka, the outlandish European “acting coach” who accompanies Libby on the fateful weekend. Blanche lives in a “Yurka-centric” world, and touching down in the South may just as well have been Mars for Blanche.
Kincaid devours the role, and indeed it is written for Blanche to be the over-the-top character who thinks everyone else in the house is strange. At one point she is so confused, because when she speaks with other members at the party, “they all want to bless my heart. Why do they want to do that?”
Giving Kincaid that role was like giving a tommy gun to a serial killer.
Kate Donadio makes her GET debut as the prim and particular Babe Collier Vaught, who as the secretary to Aunt Kate knows all of the house’s secrets and perhaps a few more. Al-Attar as Libby is another fish out of water in this North Carolina lake but she is determined to fight for what she wants.
The story would be just too unbelievable except that it really happened.
That it is so bitingly funny, is due to Payne’s unique talent and his ability to take our Southern idiosyncrasies with a dram of bourbon and branch water rather than spin them out like Granny Clampett.
In short, this play is a “Swell Party,” and you would be remiss if you didn’t go.
Ticket prices for “Swell Party” range from $23 to $33, with senior and student discounts available for select performances. “Recession-buster” perimeter tickets may also be purchased for $10 or $20 based on availability. “Three-play” season packages for 2012-2013 and individual show tickets are available online at www.get.org or by calling the box office at 770-641-1260. The show runs Wednesday through Sunday through Jan. 27.