Striking Display

'The Miss Firecracker Contest' explodes with a full array of humor and colorful performances.

The Fourth of July may be a literal independence day for Carnelle Scott and her two cousins. Carnelle intends to win the Miss Firecracker Contest, the annual beauty pageant in little Brookhaven, Miss., and leave town in "a blaze of crimson glory." Her cousin Elain is trying to liberate herself from her oppressively loving but attractively rich husband. And Elain's brother, Delmount, is divorcing himself from the legacy of the supposedly mean woman who raised all three of them, and overcome his weakness for the "elements of classical beauty" that has gotten him into a long series of ill-advised sexual entanglements.

Of course, this being a Southern Gothic family of well-intentioned maladroits, the struggle for independence will probably be a lost cause. But that doesn't mean we won't ooh and ah over a lot of comic fireworks along the way.

Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest, now playing at Live Theatre Workshop, initially comes off as little more than a broadly written, oddball-Southerner comedy. We don't realize until it's too late that Henley's sparks of hilarity are singeing us with hot little truths about how women shape their identities according to the perceptions of other people.

Case in point: the aptly named Carnelle, who has slept her way across town trying to prove to herself that she's pretty and valued. Now, at age 24, she has decided to put her reputation as "Miss Hot Tamale" and a case of syphilis behind her and earn the title of Miss Firecracker--public certification that she is beautiful and talented and respected.

The trouble is, she doesn't have the talent or the looks for it. At least that's the opinion of her loving but troubled cousins, who are certain that Carnelle is going to humiliate herself. Refreshingly, they don't seem concerned that Carnelle is going to taint the family honor; there's only one white sheep in this flock, and that's Elain, a former Miss Firecracker herself. A beauty who married well (that's the only option her mother allowed), Elain is now sick of her children and doting husband--much to the delight of brother Delmount. A ladies' man with a checkered past and spotty future, Delmount is desperate for relief from his aesthete's nightmares and his degrading work history. (Last job: scraping dead dogs off the road--hardly an ideal position for a man who thinks he has an eye for beauty.)

As directed by Jeremy Thompson, Missie Hinske and Cliff Madison as Elain and Delmount expertly walk the fine line between characterization and caricature. Hinske's Elain is self-centered but not cruel, and Madison's Delmount is befuddled by his own dissolution, completely at a loss to express how deeply he cares for the people around him. Similarly, Larry Fuller and Koryie Harvey bring unexpected solidity and nuance to smaller, potentially silly roles in the play's second half.

But it's Holli Thenhaus as Carnelle who sets off the real fireworks in this production. This is a character who lacks either guile or self-control, and every oversized emotion not only bursts through Thenhaus' voice but explodes across her face and body. Thenhaus may not be subtle, but neither is she simplistic. As in her scene-stealing turn as one of the Pigeon sisters in The Odd Couple last summer, Thenhaus uses giddy exuberance to barely disguise her character's underlying anxiety and self-doubt.

Consider how desperate Carnelle seems to impress Popeye, a near-sighted, gawky backwoods seamstress who's come to sew Carnelle's contest costume. Carnelle needs approval even from someone as apparently powerless as Popeye--who, it turns out, thanks largely to Dana Armstrong's forthright performance, has more backbone than we initially suspect.

If there's a flaw in this production, other than the telephone that refused to ring on cue during last Sunday's matinee, it's that Thenhaus and Armstrong are far too attractive to play plain women. Armstrong's geeky glasses and Thenhaus' elastic facial expressions manage to suggest something other than classic beauty, but the effect still requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Perhaps this just supports Henley's message that certain women allow other people to define them, regardless of their inherent qualities.

At any rate, Thenhaus makes it clear in other ways why Carnelle is a long shot as Miss Firecracker; the moves she works up for the talent show are a mess of stomping and flailing that's supposed to pass as a tap dancing-cheerleading routine. Yet Carnelle tries so hard, and Thenhaus throws herself so fully into the physicality of it all, that we're almost persuaded that Carnelle is good through sheer brute force.

For her part, playwright Henley doesn't need force to put her point across. Indeed, in the end Carnelle isn't even able to articulate the lesson she and the rest of us are supposed to have learned. The message is there if we want it; otherwise, Henley and Live Theatre Workshop offer a show that distracts us with a fireworks display's full complement of color, excitement and noise.

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