Arlington — If no one ever produced Mama Won’t Fly again, it wouldn't be a tragedy. That's probably not going to be the case with this comedy, because the playwriting team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten is one of the most-produced in the country (their other efforts include The Dixie Swim Club and Dearly Departed). They’ve had more than 3,500 productions and counting.
Apparently, America just can't get enough of grossly overdone Southern stereotypes, jokes you've either already heard a thousand times or can broadcast coming from a mile away, and plots that hang together by the slimmest of filaments.
Theatre Arlington's season-closing production of Mama Won't Fly, however, was greeted with a thrilled, guffawing audience at the Thursday night show reviewed. The gentleman seated next to me was so enthused that he repeated, loudly, every single laugh line.
The plot, such as it is, involves the attempts by Savannah Sprunt Fairchild Honeycutt to get her stubborn Mama to Savannah’s brother Walker's wedding, all the way from Birmingham, Ala., to Santa Monica, Calif. Problem, you guessed, it, Mama won't fly. She swears that the last time she did, she got so sick that she's sure the flight attendant "had to burn her shoes." Vomit humor before the end of the first major scene. Just as they're about to depart in Mama's ancient Buick for the four-day trek, Walker's fiancée Haylee shows up to join the trip. Walker, it seems, wants his sis, Mama and bride-to-be to bond on the way to California.
The production, directed by Natalie Gaupp, manages to showcase both the script’s strengths (few) and weaknesses (many) in equal measure.
The three leading ladies are all over the place, acting-wise. As Savannah, Alllison Willoughby spends most of her dialogue staring into the audience, as if she were alone on stage. She rarely interacts with her fellow thespians, even during the most intense scenes, although she and Mama (Jacque Campbell Disher) have a nicely sentimental moment toward the end. Disher does well with the grating dialogue, bringing it a nuance and genuine Southern quality that certainly doesn't come from the script. Caitlin Galloway, as the bride-to-be, is a delight, dishing out clumsy charm and joie de vivre throughout.
The show's real star, though, is Camille Long, who plays a quartet of characters as dissimilar as might be possibly imagined: most notably the ancient guide at the American Museum of Foundation Garments—Mama insists on stopping there because she worked for many years in the industry—and an alcoholic Texas barfly with a love for community theater. In fact, community theater gets a lot of shout-outs in this one, but it's always in a slightly sneering way. Every time it is mentioned, someone starts A-C-T-I-N-G, laying waste to the notion that community theater need not necessarily be over-A-C-T-E-D. Long, however, doesn't play that game; she simply throws herself into every character with integrity and dead-on comic timing. As the foundation-garment lady, Long could carry the entire show just by continually hobbling out on stage in yet another historic brassiere, modeled over her floor-length Little House on the Prairie-style dress.
The design team of Tony Curtis (scenery), Jesse Scott (lighting), Matt McGregor (sound) and Cathy Pritchett (properties) couldn't have come up with anything much drearier. Only costume designer Elly Hunt comes through, especially in a picnic scene in Texas that has Savannah clad in a hilariously horrid square-dance ensemble, and in an episode where the group's car and luggage are stolen and they're reduced to begging costumes from a small-town Texas theater company. Mama's in a nun's habit, presumably from Nunsense, Savannah looks like one of the flirty girls from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and poor Haylee is reduced to Little Orphan Annie, complete with bright red bloomers to match her Peter Pan-collared dress.
The show will probably be a huge success—the comedies by Jones, Hope and Wooten usually are, and Theatre Arlington gives it an OK production that matches the sometimes good, sometimes God-awful quality of the script. But Theatre Arlington has the talent to tackle much better shows, and its play-selection guru(s) should give that some thought.