Reviewed by Judy Richter
To many Americans who haven't spent much time there, Florida evokes images of warm tropical beaches, but that view applies mostly to coastal areas. Further inland, parts of Florida are densely swampy, teeming with alligators, snakes and mosquitoes. That's the Florida where Nathan Sanders' "The Sugar Bean Sisters" takes place. This 1995 first play, being given its Northern California premiere by San Jose Stage Company, takes place in a ramshackle home amid the treacherous swamps and overgrown sugar cane fields of the fictitious Sugar Bean, Fla., several miles from Disney World.
The sisters are the middle-aged Faye Clementine Nettles (Nancy Madden) and Willie Mae Nettles (Jeffra Cook), who are both waiting for something. The seemingly down-to-earth Faye, in her practical flannel shirt and jeans, is waiting for Martians to land and take her with them. She even prepares sandwiches for them. The more flighty Willie Mae, wearing a dress and a cheap wig, is trying to grow her hair back, marry a Mormon man and eventually ascend into the Celestial Kingdom. She has her eye on the kindly Bishop Crumley (James Bigelow), who's not only younger but also married. She also has what she calls her grapefruit fortune, money she received from an insurance settlement after a crate of grapefruit fell on her in a fruit-packing plant. She has hidden it on the sisters' property and has drawn a map to the site that she carries in her Book of Mormon.
The sisters' routine is disrupted one night by the arrival of Miss Videllia Sparks (Judith Miller), a New Orleans lounge singer wearing a revealing purple and red dress with lots of feathers. (Costumes are by Jeremy Cole.) Over the course of a long night, the Nettles sisters relate some of their family history and Videllia confesses that she needs $20,000 to pay a voodoo woman to lift a curse from her. They also receive a visit from Bishop Crumley and the Reptile Woman (Casey Jones Bastiaans, using a hard-to-understand Cajun accent), who helps people get rid of poisonous snakes.
Playwright Sanders has a real gift of writing in the vernacular, capturing the colorful, often very humorous phrases of his characters. Some plot twists are predictable, but the dialog is always amusing and many situations are outlandish. Director Rick Singleton and his cast, especially the three principal women, generally resist the temptation to overplay (though Miller's Videllia sometimes veers on hysteria). Instead they understand that the key to success in a comedy like this is to realize that each character takes his or her situation seriously and to convey that reality.
The set by Ching-Yi Wei, lighting by Michael Walsh and especially the sound by Jamie D. Mann, with its crickets and other bugs, add to the reality and sense of danger in the swamp.