TAMPA — Terrible, awful things happen every day in Sugar Bean. Weird things. Things no one can explain. Florida things.
Stageworks Theatre's latest production, an absurd Southern gothic comedy set in the fictional swamp town of Sugar Bean, Fla., is about three women desperate to escape the drudgery of their lives. One wants to be taken away by aliens. One wants to find a good Mormon husband and get to the celestial kingdom, not "one of those lower kingdoms." And the other just wants out of her troubled, small-town existence.
They take turns uttering playwright Nathan Sanders' belly laugh lines, including, "You can roll a dog turd in powdered sugar but that still don't make it no wedding cookie." It's a good time directed by Stageworks' artistic director Karla Hartley, tongue way in cheek. If you can laugh about Florida's stranger cultural gewgaws, you will enjoy yourself.
For your hunting pleasure, here are a handful of Sunshine State shout-outs to look for in The Sugar Bean Sisters.
Most of the Nettles family has perished in tragic, weird ways around Buster Swamp. Here's one example: A flying swamp cat took the Nettles sisters' mama. But what's real? What's hallucinatory? "The swamp will play tricks on your imagination," says Willie Mae Nettles, played elegantly by Rosemary Orlando.
An exotic dancer named Videllia Sparks (the wide-eyed Caitlin Eason), whose personal style revolves around purple feathers and power mesh, comes seeking help from the Nettles sisters when her car breaks down around Yeehaw Junction. Sound familiar? And the family home is situated near the great Watchalahoochee River. Yes, that's Watchalahoochee, not Withlacoochee.
The beauty queens
Florida loves its big-haired pageant queens. Look no further than our own small town cadre of queens in the Plant City Strawberry Festival. Sugar Bean has its own set of gussied-up junior royalty, except in this story, all the beauty queens have been poisoned by a batch of cane syrup mixed with rat poison. Dead pageant queens! Not so cute.
Gators leaving behind bloody pieces of a church dress and a Mormon-biting coral snake factor into the darker bits of The Sugar Bean Sisters. A critter-collecting Reptile Woman, played arrestingly by Ami Sallee, is called to the Nettles home to search for a snake, issuing some spooky prophecy about the fractured Nettles family dynamics in the process.
The sisters live on their dead daddy's sugarcane field. Faye Clementine Nettles (bold, brash Caroline Jett) previously witnessed the crash-landing of an alien space ship there, landing her on the cover of the Weekly World News. But it's not Florida without a citrus fortune, which Willie stands to inherit. She keeps the location of the buried treasure in her Book of Mormon, which no one can touch except maybe the swoon-worthy Bishop Crumley (Ned Averill-Snell).
When the play begins, the Nettles sisters have returned from a nightmarish trip to Disney World in which Willie Mae's Eva Gabor wig flies off on Space Mountain and they get stuck on the tram looking for the Goofy lot. Later, Faye stands on the roof and beckons the aliens with the earwig lyrics to It's a Small World. But the royal reign of the mouse is clear when Videllia tells Faye, "You've never been anywhere in your whole entire life." "I've been to Disney World," she indignantly replies. In Florida, that's saying something.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.