Southern Comfort 

Folksy favorites keep whistling 'Dixie' while Horizon Theatre nurtures contemporary perspectives on the New South

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From its first production at the end of Theatre in the Square's 1990-1991 season, Smoke has been a smash. Palmer Wells says the runs of both Smoke and the 4-year-old Sanders Family Christmas routinely sell out and require extensions. The theater has produced the show at Southern Polytechnic State University and Kennesaw State University, but, Wells says, "We have such a devoted following, I think they'd even come to see it in a cow pasture. We call the regulars 'the Smokies.'"

The most seasoned veteran in Theatre in the Square's long-term relationship with Smoke is Karen Howell, who as Vera Sanders comes across like Minnie Pearl getting ready to discipline you with a hickory switch. She attributes part of the show's appeal to the fact that they take the Sanders family seriously. "When we started, Smoke's first director, Dex Edwards, said, 'We have to walk a thin line here,'" Howell recalls. "We want to have fun and entertain, but not go so far overboard that we offend the audience. A lot of us have grown up not that differently from the Sanderses, and we don't want to make the people look ridiculous.'"

Beecham shares that view. "When you exaggerate the Southernness, you're not being real to the character. Even in a musical revue, you have to be true. 'How country is the character? How naive or uneducated?' The easy choice for actors is that, because someone's from the country or the South, they're not smart, and that's not necessarily true. It's more like buffoonery than acting."

Nevertheless, the corn is as high as the proverbial elephant's eye in many popular Southern plays. Sometimes the caricatures are built into the works themselves: Pump Boys & Dinettes includes songs with titles like "Farmer Tan," "Catfish" and "Drinkin' Shoes." Other times, it's a matter of interpretation. When thinking of Steel Magnolias, it's hard not to flash back to the phony, vowel-elongating accents of Olympia Dukakis, Darryl Hannah and even Julia Roberts in the chick-flick adaptation.

"There's a lot that's easy to make fun of in the South," says playwright Philip DePoy, whose play Easy, a mystery set in present-day Atlanta, is in rotating repertory with Negro Dance Lesson at the New South festival. "Southern Crap theater takes things in the South and makes fun of them just to make fun of them, like the way Longhorn Steakhouse has the big-haired lady who's the spokesman. Any play that treats any group with a shallow eye and a heavy hand does the rest of the work a great disservice."

Atlanta audiences tend to have a high tolerance for Southern stereotypes, proving more likely to be tickled than insulted by them. In fact, they tend to revisit them time and again just as the "Smokies" see Smoke on the Mountain year in and year out.

"Audiences in general buy Southern caricatures before they see past them," says DePoy, whose work ranges from the gentle downhome musical revue Appalachian Christmas Homecoming to the religious satire Preacher from the Black Lagoon. "The South still has, to some extent, the vanquished mentality of surrender and burned cities. A way out is humor that is primarily self-deprecating. I believe in, and try to engender, a kind of honor and dignity for the South, especially the rural South, because I love it."

Wells says there isn't a lot of crossover between Smoke and the rest of the theater's shows, and the same could be said about its die-hard fans and the theater's other patrons. You might not expect a "Smokie" to line up for something as edgy as Neil LaBute's Bash, which the theater recently produced in its Alley Stage, but Wells says they seldom even check out similar-themed shows like Fair and Tender Ladies.

"Many of them are church groups, and I wouldn't call them our average subscribers -- there's just this one little show that appeals to them," he says.

Attending with the singles group from First United Methodist Church, Bobbie Therrassee has seen Smoke on the Mountain twice and Sanders Family Christmas once, and she looks forward to seeing both of them again. "Some people ask me, 'How can you see a play more than once?' And I say, 'I've seen The Passion Play every year of my life and still get something out of it."

But Therrassee says her group is less interested in Theatre in the Square's more serious fare. "We went to see The Night of the Iguana there, and I'm sure it was a fine show, but the heavy, tragedy stuff just doesn't go over as well."



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