By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I never knew what true happiness was till I got married. By then it was too late." Good line. And if you didn't know you were watching The Dixie Swim Club, a comedy about five women renewing their friendship at an annual North Carolina beach weekend, you might think you were back in Truvy's Louisiana beauty shop with the Steel Magnolias.
Now running at Pocket Sandwich Theatre in a pleasantly relaxed production directed by Susan Sargeant, The Dixie Swim Club, written by three North Carolina writers, borrows liberally from the setup of that other play about strong Southern women. In this one, five girlfriends, all members of a championship college swim team in the 1970s, reunite at a seaside condo every August. In four scenes, unfolding over a span of 33 years, the ladies share triumphs, heartaches, tragedies, baked goods and a great many sharp one-liners.
"Your life is just one endless country song," says Lexie, the flirty, oft-divorced one, to Vernadette, who's let her husband, her kids and her figure get more than a little out of control.
The in-control one is Sheree, who married the son of the swim coach. She hosts the weekend get-togethers, scheduling activities with military precision. "Group swim" happens morning and evening, and healthy snacks are not just available but mandatory.
Dinah, the unmarried lawyer, sloshes cocktails at breakfast and does her part to keep the sarcasm quotient high. Her opposite is Jeri Neal, who left college for a convent, until an epiphany 22 years after graduation led her out of a nun's life and straight to a fertility clinic. She shows up heavily pregnant at the first of the four reunions in the play. Her condition comes as a big shock to her friends, but subsequent sudden labor pains come as no surprise to the audience.
The women of The Dixie Swim Club are amalgams of familiar feminine types: Golddigger/nympho, mommy, tough broad, happy fatty and wide-eyed naif. It's Designing Women minus digressions into politics or wallpaper patterns. It's The Women sans high fashion, servants and children. It's Beaches on a different beach, Magnolias without kidney failure and diabetic coma.
Flawed by a few over-obvious gimmicks (there's a hurricane brewing in one scene and, of course, somebody's got to die before the fourth reunion), this play nevertheless takes hold with irresistible charm. It is nice to see conversations among women who like and support each other and who don't come off as snotty, shrewish or unbearably narcissistic (hello, Sisters Rosensweig, we mean you). Bravo's Real Housewives, reality TV's version of Clare Booth Luce's mondial des femmes, would have you believe that coteries of women quickly devolve into the human equivalent of alley cats fighting over garbage scraps—albeit alley cats trying desperately to look like pampered purebreds as they scratch, claw and tear each other to pieces.
The Dixie Swim Club is about unglamorous women you wouldn't mind knowing and hanging out with for real. And you probably do, at least Sheree, Vernadette and Dinah, the most credible and grounded of the play's five characters.
Great literature it ain't, but Dixie Swim, treading somewhere between sitcom and melodrama, can backstroke a victory lap around the dumb bumper-sticker homilies and maudlin outbursts of Steel Magnolias (a play, as God and dirty turnips are my witness, I hope never to suffer again). In the production at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, the somewhat flimsy structure of Dixie's script is buttressed by the efforts of the five terrific actresses in director Sargeant's cast.
The standout is Robin Coulonge as Jeri Neal, who re-enters a secular world as a 44-year-old single mother, only to find that her decades as a nun have left her with no marketable skills other than lock-picking (nuns lose a lot of keys). Coulonge makes the character quirky, clumsy and guileless, just the sort of sweet, grown-up child who'd be everybody's most cherished, trusted friend.
As Dinah, the tough-talking lawyer with a hand perpetually glued to a martini shaker, Kristen Blevins James, a tall beauty with a husky drawl, balances out the flightiness of the others. James has a great way of timing her zingers to land with maximum zing.
It's easy to believe Lucia A. Welch as Sheree, a busy ball of energy who still teaches swimming at the Y. The way she barrels around the condo (lovely set design by Rodney Dobbs, by the way) and bosses the other women, she's part lifeguard, part drillmaster. Welch also gives the character a soft heart; we can see in her eyes that she's wounded by the realization that her dearest pals have been tossing her tofu canapes out the window for, lo these many years.
Despite a collection of heinously shiny wigs, Melissa Couture manages to bring off some of the confident sexual purr of Sex & the City's Samantha in the role of man-dependent Lexie. Playing straight out to the audience, Couture vamps and primps, borderline obnoxious right up to the moment we find out Lexie's secretly the most generous and warmhearted of all the friends. She also gets the lioness' share of smart quips. Of the ex-nun, Lexie says "she genuflects at jars of Miracle Whip."
And then there's the marvelous Sheila D. Rose as Vernadette, who declares that the greatest moment of her post-swim career was buying "fat pants and a deep-fat fryer." Why she sports various casts, crutches and even a clown suit in the play is part of the silliness, but Rose gives Vernadette, the one with the worst marriage and rottenest kids, a sort of Roseanne-like bark. Sure, Vernadette could be jealous of the others, whose sons aren't on parole and whose house hasn't been foreclosed, but her give-a-shit is plumb wore out. And don't even try to keep her from eating biscuits and gravy. Verndatte's second-act speech on the value of biscuits to the Southern diet is a funny-angry ode to flour power.
First produced in 2008, The Dixie Swim Club is now a favorite in regional and community theaters, with hundreds of productions over the past two years. (Theatre Arlington's about to do it, too.) It's as if the playwrights—Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten (one woman, two men)—set out to construct the most commercial two-hour comedy with an all-woman cast since Robert Harling's Magnolias. Five women, one set, and one distinguishing characteristic per woman. Give the gals a reason to get together repeatedly (in Magnolias, it's weddings and funerals) and let the fireworks and waterworks commence.
In the final scene of Dixie Swim, when the ladies are in their 70s, very little has changed about them. Sheree is still the super-duper organizer, even with a titanium hip. Lexie, the merry divorcee, is still trawling for a hot date with younger gents. Jeri Neal is only a smidge more worldly wise. And right up to the minute the lights go out for the last time in that beach house, we're right there with them, happy to share in their celebration of sisterhood. As all women know, having girlfriends who stick by you, sink or swim, can be a lifesaver.