UP­ROAR­I­OUS SOUTH­ERN COM­EDY

MEM­PHIS CHAR­AC­TER AC­TOR READY FOR HIS CLOSE-UP, MR. DEMILLE

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Stage - By Christo­pher Blank

Mem­phis char­ac­ter ac­tor Steve Swift is over­due a leap to prime time. Some­one find this man a rich pro­ducer to send him and his al­ter ego, Sis­ter My­otis, on a na­tional tour. This town just isn’t big enough for the out­landish South­ern-fried grande dame he has cre­ated to save our way­ward souls.

His im­pos­ing church lady has re­turned to the TheatreWorks stage un­der the man­tle of Voices of the South, bear­ing a new chap­ter in the gospel ac­cord­ing to My­otis.

In “Sis­ter My­otis’ Church Re­treat,” the au­di­ence joins the dea­coness and her two du­ti­ful as­sis­tants, Sis­ter Velma Needle­meyer (Todd Berry) and Sis­ter Ima Lone (Jenny Odle Madden), for a new-mem­ber meet­ing of the women’s aux­il­iary.

Be­cause of a sched­ul­ing con­flict, how­ever, the as­sem­bly is forced to con­vene in the bomb shel­ter of her 80,000-mem­ber me­gachurch. Dur­ing the sur­prise five- day lock-in, My­otis tells the cap­tive au­di­ence that she’ll cover all the bases of good Chris­tian house­wifery, from cop­ing with toe­nail fun­gus to deal­ing with chil­dren, “a.k.a. God’s lit­tle chal­lenges.”

The thought of be­ing trapped for a week with a zeal­ous au­to­crat won’t faze Swift’s lo­cal cult fol­low­ing. His light­hearted lam­poon­ing of church cul­ture is as per­cep­tive as it is un­re­lent­ingly funny. The pace never slows, a tes­ta­ment to Swift’s con­cise writ­ing and Jerry Dye’s fast-mov­ing di­rec­tion.

As a rule, My­otis finds men (her well-trained hus­band, Her­shiel, in par­tic­u­lar) to be barely tol­er­a­ble if not out­right un­nec­es­sary. In­ti­macy is oner­ous in a Chris­tian (read: her own) house­hold, and the less ef­fort ex­pended on it, the hap­pier a woman will be.

“There is noth­ing that can be ac­com­plished with sexy un­der­wear that can’t be ac­com­plished by open­ing your flan­nel house­coat a lit­tle,” she ad­vises the young ladies.

While Velma and Ima have never been much more than My­otis’ har­ried syco­phants in past pro­duc­tions, they blos­som in “Church Re­treat.” Madden’s child­like Ima, “with the brain the size of a squir­rel’s,” is an ex­cited helper, ea­ger to get the at­ten­tion she craves. As Velma, Todd Berry plays the si­lent, un­ruf­fled foil who can say a thou­sand words with a twist of the lips or the flex of an eye­brow. In this script, both Berry and Madden’s dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ters fi­nally seem like they are My­otis’ es­sen­tial co­horts.

“Sis­ter My­otis’ Church Re­treat” — a sem­i­nar on mar­riage, chil­dren, death and good-house­keep­ing from a woman with a grandiose ap­pre­ci­a­tion for her own sac­ri­fices in life — is an up­roar­i­ous evening of bril­liant South­ern comic writ­ing from a mas­ter satirist.

— Christo­pher Blank: 529-2305

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