A baby shower ought to be a lighthearted, friendly celebration, but not in Maribeth McCarthy’s “Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams.” Feuding in-laws, domineering mothers and clashing cultures turn the event into a comic chaos that ultimately uncovers long-held sorrows and secrets. The Women’s Theatre Festival world premiere is often hilarious and sometimes gripping, despite an uneven script and a rough-and-ready production.
Nora is nervously organizing a church baby shower for her sister-in-law, Maggie. Nora, a Northerner, hopes to ingratiate herself with her husband Quinn’s traditional Southern mother, Jubilee. Maggie’s gung-ho husband Jack and his sarcastic twin siblings, Aiden and Avery, arrive to help, along with Nora’s fun-loving friend Zee, who sneaks in bottles of wine to the dry event.
Jubilee soon bursts in, with her other daughter Samantha in tow, whom she’s groomed in the ways of Southern womanhood. Jubilee immediately tries to take over, clashing with Nora over choices of decorations, food and games. When Jack and the twins’ mother, Anne, shows up, her long-held animosity for Jubilee erupts into a battle of insults and name-calling. In the aftermath, Jubilee’s three children attempt a breakthrough in their relationship with their mother.
McCarthy has a knack for funny punch lines, amusing characters and farcical situations. She cleverly satirizes pregnant women’s cravings and the pressures of naming a child, while knowingly revealing every mother’s hopes for their children as measured against their own disappointments.
However, the script relies a lot on sitcom stereotypes, making it difficult to buy into the more realistic segments. It’s also overlong at nearly two and half hours, a number of scenes becoming repetitive after making their points. The big shift into drama at play’s end loses some impact through extended dialogue detailing what has already been established.
Doubling as director, McCarthy gets nicely individualized characterizations from each cast member. But she allows the tone to shift back and forth, pushing for zany slapstick on one hand and emotional realism on the other. Allowing characters to scream lines at angry high points turn them unintelligible in the theater’s very live acoustics. Comic timing and proper enunciation also need work, based on Thursday’s opening.
Chelsey Winstead’s Nora and Joey DeSena’s Quinn make a believable loving couple, both bridling over Jubilee’s stranglehold. Kelly Stansell’s Jubilee is a recognizable Southern type, able to wither with an icy stare and poisoned-honey putdown. As her daughter Samantha, Lauren Bamford makes a madcap transition from Stepford wife to wild thing.
Tyler Graeper’s Aiden and Liz Webb’s Avery get a lot of laughs from the physical antics they’re assigned. As their mother Anne, Carla Reck delivers a cynical balance to Jubilee’s platitudes. Sean Malone’s Jack is enthusiasm personified and works well with Hannah Marks’ Maggie, whose constant eating is extremely funny.
The Women’s Theatre Festival deserves credit for giving women playwrights a forum for their work. McCarthy’s play has good structure and laudable insights. With some pruning and balancing, it should appeal to additional producers.
What: “Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams,” presented by Women’s Theatre Festival
Where: Studio Theatre, Jones Hall, Meredith College, Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 10-12; 3 p.m. Aug. 13
Info: 919-760-2840 or womenstheatrefestival.com