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Theater: Jagged Flashes of Inspiration

3 minute read
Richard Schickel


The lights come up on a young woman standing awkwardly, boldly, downstage center. She is wearing a leotard, mesh stockings and tap shoes. Without a word of explanation she picks up a white rifle and begins twirling it to the strains of the Star-Spangled Banner. Before the national anthem is finished, she will work flips, splits, flag waving and roman candles into the hilariously awful act she is practicing. Doing this lunatic parody of a beauty contest talent routine without onstage preparation or any chance to establish character is, for an actress, the equivalent of an operatic soprano hitting a high E-flat on her first note. Holly Hunter, who has to come on cold every night at the Manhattan Theater Club and open the show with this scene, is clearly the bravest performer currently working in New York City.

She is also very gifted. For Carnelle Scott, the orphan and reformed town tart whom she plays, is a daffy simpleton. Seeking redemption and identity by becoming Miss Firecracker at her Mississippi home town’s annual Fourth of July celebration, she could easily become shrill in her eccentric quest, pathetic in her eventual failure. Hunter finds a sweet yet fierce core of integrity in this character that is not only very appealing but the source of the grip Beth Henley’s play finally exerts on an audience.

Making a connection of that kind is an important service to Henley. Though her territory looks superficially like the contemporary American South, it is really a country of the mind: one of Tennessee Williams’ provinces that has surrendered to a Chekhovian raiding party, perhaps. Her strength is a wild anecdotal inventiveness, but her people, lost in the ramshackle dreams and tumble-down ambitions with which she in vests them, often seem to be metaphors waywardly adrift. They are blown this way and that by the gales of laughter they provoke, and they frequently fail to find a solid connection with clear and generally relevant meaning.

There are several such figures present in The Miss Firecracker Contest.

They include a seamstress named Popeye (Belita Moreno) who learned her trade making dresses for frogs and hears Voices through her eyes; a romantic gallant (Mark Linn-Baker) who is haunted by nightmares of dismemberment and memories of an unsuitable recent job sweeping up dead dogs from the road; a sometime belle (Patricia Richardson) who finds it easy to leave her husband but impossible to abandon her clock col lection; and a carnival balloon salesman (Budge Threlkeld), cheerfully wondering which of the three major diseases inhabiting his body will kill him.

These are obviously the kinds of roles actors can happily chomp on, and they are all enthusiastically, even gratefully, played. If Director Stephen Tobolowsky’s muse sometimes seems too busily antic for the cramped confines of the Manhattan Theater Club stage, his choices nevertheless represent a legitimate response to Henley’s writing. On the whole, it is more vividly and crazily charged than it was in her Pulitzer-prizewinning Crimes of the Heart. In fact, in its cut-loose characterizations and brazen theatricality, Miss Firecracker is infinitely preferable to that rather pallid comedy.

Even so, both author and director are lucky to have a lightning rod like Holly Hunter at the center of their revels, conducting their bright, jagged flashes of inspiration to solid, believable emotional ground.

—By Richard Schickel

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