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Before Going Golden, Girls Have Their Middle Age at Flagler Playhouse’s “Dixie Swim Club”

| March 11, 2015

The cast of 'Dixie Swim Club,' now playing at the Flagler Playhouse. From left, Liz Gallagher, Nancy Howell, Sally McGhee, Robin Davis, Michelle O'Neil. (Flagler Playhouse)

The cast of ‘Dixie Swim Club,’ now playing at the Flagler Playhouse. From left, Liz Gallagher, Nancy Howell, Sally McGhee, Robin Davis, Michelle O’Neil. (Flagler Playhouse)

It’s a mystery as old as Olduvai: What makes women tick, though maybe only to male hominids. For Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, a trio of Southern playwrights who’ve managed to do the impossible–making big money by writing plays for small community theater stages–there is no mystery. Women, middle age women especially, are their fountain of lucre, a never-ending source of one-liners and plays that have included “Dearly Beloved,” “Always a Bridesmaid” and “Farce of Nature” and elicited comparisons to Neil Simon for heartland. “We write comedies audiences want to see,” the trio, who’s branded itself Joneshopewooten, says unapologetically on its website in a sly slap at Broadway. They claim to have been at the source of 3,300 productions and 20,000 performances, which would make them among the most popular playwrights in stage history.

Their “Dixie Swim Club” seems a natural for the Flagler Playhouse stage, which thrives on putting on productions big audiences will want to see for easy laughs and occasional tear-jerking. This comedy follows five former college swim teammates who get together one weekend each summer at a cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The audience will meet the women at various ages between their 30s and 70s. All have grown drastically different from one another. That doesn’t inhibit or drag down their friendships.

It’s hardly the first time that swimming, swimmers, or pools have been used metaphorically, whether to illustrate the pompous ass in John Updike’s “Lifeguard” story, Ray Bradbury’s tangling of the mysteries of the sexes with those of the sea in “The Women, and of course John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” where swimming through suburban pools is a man’s journey through self-deception. But all those stories were written by men with decidedly male-centered metaphors. The Dixie Swim Club is different in tone, theme, depths and perspective.

According to Lorraine Portman, director of the Playhouse production, the play combines the hilarious and the meaningful, enlightening men who wonder what women do when they are not in the room and giving women that sense of recognition in others’ stories, because they’re true to life. “During the show, I was talking to college friends and realizing, here we are, many years out of college, and I don’t know if I’d be friends with them,” Portman says. “We have very different political points of views, we have very different lives, we come from very different places, but college was this thing that bound us together.”

A play that makes more demands on funny bones than cerebral cortexes.

The play depicts the same dynamic. “The women in the play come from very different financial circumstances, but they share a love of swimming and they shared a special time in their youth, and that’s allowed them to stay together,” Portman says.

Yet conflict can strike the cottage at any time. All it takes is something as frivolous as questioning the Southern-style biscuit tradition. When one of the women suggests a healthier alternative, another throws a fit.

A graduate of an all women’s college herself, Portman is now into her third season at the playhouse. She teaches playwriting and screenwriting at Flagler College. It’s hard to say if she sees these same types of relationships—the ones she’s busy choreographing in Dixie Club—taking root on her campus, because of that pesky student teacher boundary.

Of course, the comedy offers up occasional bits of melancholy. The women have to face the serious things life throws their way in a 40-year span: illness, divorce, sheer age. “There are some comedies that are all surface, like ‘The Hangover,’” Portman says, but there’s also a higher pedigree where, underneath it all, “there’s something at stake,” like, in her view, Neil Simon comedies or “The Golden Girls.”

Among these girls here, there’s the obsessive team leader, Sheree (Nancy Howell). It doesn’t matter how many years have passed. Sheree still sees herself as captain. Consequently, “Every moment of the special weekend the women get together is planned to the last detail,” Howell says.

The character is quirky. “She’s into healthy eating, even if it tastes awful,” Howell says. “She is always in charge and has a backup plan for everything. When life doesn’t fit her schedule, it’s crisis time.” But her team keeps her grounded.

Howell can relate as a “take-charge type,” herself, though she can’t actually swim and prefers chocolate to tofu. She also feels there’s nothing fantastical about the play. “I would say it is how women are, period,” she says. These are women who have experienced relationships with men, good and bad, but have their friends as support as only women friends can support each other.”

There’s also Dinah, the career dynamo, Jeri Neal—the nun—and Lexie who is the archetypal piece of work. You could say she’s the Blanche of the group (the Golden Girl Rue McClanahan brought to life) or maybe Kim Cattrall’s Samantha from “Sex in the City.” Lexie is played by Michele O’Neil, vice president of productions for the playhouse and president-elect of its board.

Lexie’s life is characterized by her vanity and her long trail of divorces. In spite of being self-centered to the extent that it is a real challenge to render her as lovable, “she’s comical and very endearing,” O’Neil says. She was surprised to get the part. “I don’t see myself at all as this character. It’s been a challenge to try to find my inner quote-unquote Lexie, because I’m typically not that type of woman.” She says Portman had her alone read for that role. “I think for Lorraine, she saw a gregariousness that she thought I had and there has to be a certain look to Lexie because she’s had cosmetic surgery to keep herself looking youthful.”

O’Neil may not be a Lexie simulacrum, but she’s known plenty of them. “We all know people who are like her,” she says. Or like any of the women in “Dixie Swim Club.”

“The Dixie Swim Club” opened March 6 and runs March 12, 13, 14, 20, 21 at 7:30 p.m. and March 15 and 22 at 2p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students. Get your tickets online here or call the box office 386/586-0773. Other cast members include Robin Davis, Liz Gallagher, and Sally McGhee.

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