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Sweet tea and a Southern drawl prove to be essential when it comes to swallowing the most difficult of issues. Therefore, with bold disregard to women of the South’s social decorum (not to discuss their age, fears, and mortality), the Touring Theatre of North Carolina production of Todd Johnson’s The Sweet By and By addresses the issues bravely and with true Southern charm.
The Brenda P. Schleunes adapted and directed play revolves around the monotonous days of four women in a nursing home on the outskirts of Raleigh, NC. The women find solace in one another, while questioning, in their own way, the dubious pains and beauties of what it is to be alive. Much of the story is told by Margaret (Laurine Concutelli), a surly yet humorous elderly resident of the home, whose failing body is no match for her for-the-most-part sharp, witty mind. Through Margaret we meet Bernice (Deborah Kintzing), an almost childlike music lover with only rare bouts of lucidness. The two women, as partners in crime, challenge the conventions of the home and ultimately alter the lives of everyone in contact with them. Their kind-hearted nurse, Lorraine (Shayla Thompson*), who is consistent in her attendance of church every Sunday, but plagued by a multitude of God questionings, , , serves as both protector and encourager to the antics of the ladies. Completing the unlikely quartet of companions is the closely guarded and sassy beautician Rhonda (Camilla Millican), who, with the help of the ladies, slowly opens her heart to receiving love.
The Upstage Cabaret of the Triad Stage and a minimal set design provide a heightened intimacy that aids connection with the audience while the four actors move through the piece, at times portraying various characters. Although the entire ensemble delivers authentic and rich performances, specific praise must be given to Concutelli. Her approach to a character several decades older than herself is simply riveting. Concutelli conveys simultaneous strength and vulnerability with ease, while displaying a deteriorating physical evolution as the play unfolds. Overlooking a few unclear transitions, Schleunes’ directorial choice of a black box theatrical perspective, in terms of the staging, proves to be quite effective considering all the actors are present onstage even when not participating in the scene.
The play incites concepts that not only relate to those in the twilight of their lives, but with an audience of diverse demographics: everyone ponders the significance of his or her own life and the meaning behind all the struggles that accompanies it. There is wisdom to be gleaned from the ladies on the stage, especially with lines such as, “ Life is about choosing whom and what you love. Everything else falls into place…”
Todd Johnson’s insightful story and moving dialogue are handled with great care in the hands of the Touring Theatre of North Carolina. The production team has constructed a piece balancing deep bosom humor with the vitality of the human spirit, all while relying of Southern sensibilities.
*The role of Lorraine was double cast in this production, with Hilda Willis playing the role during the production’s first weekend and Shayla Thompson performing at review during the second weekend.