Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley was alive, not surprisingly, when she wrote her 1988 memoir, Turned Funny. At the beginning of Phillip DePoy's theatrical adaptation for Theatre in the Square, her condition has taken a turn for the worse. As Sibley, Linda Stephens casually remarks, "Well, I'm dead," and reads her own obituary while sitting on the porch of her famed mountain cabin in Sweet Apple.
Turned Funny's playwright, three actors, three musicians and director Fred Chappell all pitch in to shake up the show out of the familiar hit-the-highlights structure of biographical plays. The production's inventiveness and Sibley's lingering appeal made last summer's premiere of Turned Funny a runaway hit, inspiring this summer's remount as well as a holiday-themed spin-off, Christmas at Sweet Apple, coming later this year.
Stephens proves particularly versatile at portraying Sibley at different ages, capturing the loose-limbed physicality of girlhood and the wordless chemistry of falling in love as a young woman. Jill Jane Clements finds subtle variations in the same brand of feisty humor as all the female characters.
Playing all the male roles, Ric Reitz struggles a bit with the thankless task of portraying Sibley's first husband's serious alcoholism, which must be conveyed in only a few short scenes. Although Turned Funny begins by addressing the lighter side of Southern quirkiness – the title is her mother's euphemism for eccentricity – the play returns to darker, more problematic matters such as booze, bigamy and racism (in an interlude about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.). As the second act focuses on the decline of Sibley's loved ones, the main character, perhaps inevitably, seems like a bystander to her own life.
Turned Funny's first act features enough humor and youthful excitement to give the overall show narrative momentum. Stephens appealingly embodies the contradictions of a woman best known for writing homespun columns of mountain life, even though her heart seemed to belong in covering murder trials and "bunco rackets."
The play's use of bluegrass songs (some original to this show) contributes enormously to Turned Funny's texture and sense of place. The music contributes to the show's overall tone as a warm nostalgia piece, which is probably appropriate. It's all but impossible to imagine columnists such as Sibley carving out the same niche amid the New Media of the 21st century. We may not see her likes again.
Turned Funny. Through July 29. $20-$35. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7 p.m. Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369. www.theatreinthesquare.com.
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