by Toby Cooper
Shrugging off 21 months of pandemic-induced silence, Actor’s Theater Orcas Island leaps back into the spotlight with a tears-and-laughter production of the acclaimed comedy, The Savannah Sipping Society, a two-act trench de vie about four Southern women bonding, reminiscing, and — indeed — sipping their way through a bevy life’s indelible makeover moments.
The popular writing team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, professionally known as JONES HOPE WOOTEN, love to create laugh-out-loud comedies peppered with lucid, strong roles for women. Wooten’s early pedigree with TV’s The Golden Girls shines through, as ATOI’s perennial stars Suzanne Gropper and Melinda Milligan are joined by Diane Craig and Dorrie Braun to banter their way into our hearts.
“The themes are so real,” says ATOI Director Doug Bechtel. “Losing your job to some kid, remembering the ornery ex-husband, facing scary medical issues, just plain growing old — Orcas islanders know these things first hand. But the story is told with such humor, Savannah makes our own problems melt away.”
And that is the subtle magic of community theater. The story is spun by friends. The Grange has 60 seats, maybe five klieg lights and no curtain. It almost feels like high school. But wait. Savannah transports us to a faraway Georgia town with wispy Spanish moss on every tree. Then, as each of the four friends confronts a branded mid-life crisis, we find ourselves swept with the speed of light right back to good ol’ Orcas Island.
ATOI welcomes Craig, a 13-year veteran of community theater in Saginaw, Michigan where her favorite production was the musical “Gypsy,” in which she played Mazeppa, a bugle-tooting burlesque stripper. But as the wistful and unabashedly horny Dot Haigler in Savannah, she proves her versatility.
Anchoring the cast is Braun as the driven Randa Covington whose career plans are disrupted when she falls off the first rung of a two-rung ladder. Undeterred, Randa hosts her new friends on her bourgeois downtown veranda just long enough to start experimenting with the perils of middle-aged dating. Oh no, it’s not that kind of play.
Braun’s storied resume includes 15 years as owner/operator of the Lyric Theater in Los Angeles, known best for plays and musicals in black box format. As Randa, she sets aside her passion for opera in favor of Southern charm on the veranda.
But it would not be ATOI without the bubbling exuberance of Gropper (Jinx Jenkins) and the unflinching steadiness of Milligan (Marlafaye Mosley). Close your eyes, now, and imagine Milligan — powerhouse vocal star of Mamma Mia — playing a pickup-truck-and-gun-rack Texan with a seemingly endless supply of Kentucky Bourbon in her tote bag. This alone is worth the price of admission.
“The Savannah Sipping Society” opens Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m. at the Grange and runs for seven performances, ending Sept. 12. Mask, vax, and certain COVID precautions will be observed.