Southern Grit and Wit at NTAC

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Julie Ellis as Sheree gets the attention of Marla Stone as Jeri and Roxanne Martinez as Vernadette in “The Dixie Swim Club.” Photo by Ron Yee

Five Southern women, whose friendships began many years ago on their college swim team, meet each August; renting the same beach cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“The Dixie Swim Club” at the Newport Theatre Arts Center is set in the living room of the beach cottage on four different weekends spanning 33 years.  In the first scene, the women are all in their mid-40s in 1977.  That is followed by three more reunions – 1982, 1987, and 2010.

The play tackles serious subjects such as marriage, divorce, child rearing and aging with Southern wit and grit. The women have long since left formalities behind and engage in no-holds-barred conversations, confrontations, and reminiscing.

There is Dinah Grayson, the aggressive career woman, played by Cheryl Pellerin. Vernadette Simms seems to live life followed perpetually by a dark cloud – she’s played by Roxanne Martinez.  Sheree Hollinger, the control freak and former swim team captain is played by Julie Ellis; and Lexi Richards, who will stop at nothing to hold on to her external beauty and her husband du jour, is acted by Della Lisi.  Finally, there’s Jeri Neal McFeely (Marla Stone) the pleaser – who becomes a nun and then leaves the sisterhood for a surprising reason.

All five actresses had the audience – including me – laughing aloud throughout the show. Especially fun was Martinez’s passionate monologue about biscuits.  The audience exploded in applause.

Director Michael Ross says more than 40 women auditioned for the five roles.

“Since all five of the characters are so strong, I didn’t have any of the actresses read for only one particular role.”

When Ross cast the show, some of the women were surprised by the roles they landed.

How does a male direct an all female cast in which gender-related humor and challenges are the majority of the dialogue?  Ross says that was the most challenging part of the directing “The Dixie Swim Club”: “trying to tap into the sensibilities of the all female characters.”

He held one-on-one sessions with each of the actresses, focusing on specific areas to work on.

“The sessions proved to be very productive,” he said.” It was a turning point during the rehearsal process.”

Through the process, Simms says she learned “that under Vernadette’s gruff exterior lies a woman with a heart of gold. Through this rehearsal process I fell in love with my character.”

Another challenging aspect for the actresses and the director is that the characters age 33 years over the course of the play.  Ross recognizes that “the vast majority of senior citizens in their 70s are still active and vital.”

Along with the sarcasm and humor, are a healthy serving of tender moments shared among best friends.

The play was co-written by Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten and Jessie Jones, a writer and producer for the TV series “The Golden Girls.”

Treat yourself to “The Dixie Swim Club” and I guarantee you will leave wanting to call an old friend.

“The Dixie Swim Club”

Newport Theatre Arts Center

Through April 24

Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights 8 pm

Sunday matinee 2 p.m.

Saturday, April 23, 2 p.m.

Tickets $15



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