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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

'Daisy Fay's' pageant tales take the tiara

THERE SHE IS... Veronika Duerr as Daisy Fay Harper
  • THERE SHE IS... Veronika Duerr as Daisy Fay Harper
Daisy Fay and the Miss Mississippi Pageant may be a more appropriate name for Ed Howard’s charming stage adaptation of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, playing through Saturday at Actor’s Express. Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, wrote the original 1981 Daisy Fay novel in the form of a girl’s diary entries spanning half of the 1950s. As a one-woman play, Daisy Fay takes place over a single summer, although Act One presents plenty of flashbacks.

Teenage Daisy Fay Harper undergoes an ugly duckling transformation over the summer of 1958. The first act finds Daisy Fay (Veronika Duerr) chagrined by her chipped tooth and spectacles, while her jeans and brains make her look like a perfect tomboy. By Act Two, however, she’s gotten contact lenses, had her teeth and hair fixed and looks like the belle of the ball. From a cash-poor background in Hattiesburg, Daisy Fay becomes an unlikely Miss Mississippi contender, and her account of the pageant makes for delightful and compelling comedy. Playing in repertory with Spring Awakening at Actor's Express, Daisy Fay has two more productions, so fans of Southern storytelling shouldn’t miss it.

The play includes familiar character types, such as secretly mean Southern beauties and power-hungry stage mothers, but also reveals fun details behind the scenes of a 1950s beauty pageant. Daisy Fay suggests contestants should always do humor for the talent portion of the show, because the judges and audience need comic relief after the oh-so-serious music performances and “I’ll never go hungry again!” speeches. Daisy Fay performs her routine as a flustered Southern lady on the radio, which comes across as funny, corny and period appropriate.

Marietta resident Ed Howard, one of the co-creators of the Greater Tuna plays, clearly adores the source material from his fellow Alabaman Flagg. Duerr, who played the title role in Actor’s Express’ Becky Shaw last year, touchingly conveys Daisy Fay’s coming of age, and ingratiates with the audience even when her characters at her most indignant. Duerr takes lines like “Her hair looked like she had arrived by eagle!” and gives them terrific comedic embellishment.

Nevertheless, Act Two works so well and feels so self-sufficient that Act One comes across as unfinished by comparison. Her first lines are “Hi! I’m Daisy Fay Harper and I hate all men!” The play uses her relationships with men as a through-line, but male characters like her unworthy fiancée never come into sharp relief. The Miracle Man of the title refers to her father’s best friend, hard-drinking crop duster Jimmy Snow. At one point Jimmy organizes a fake revival meeting and drafts Daisy Fay as the faith healer, but the scene passes so quickly it doesn’t really stand out amid the other anecdotes.

In our heroine’s telling, men like Jimmy Snow never prove as vivid as the female characters, like Daisy Fay’s ill-fated best friend Pickle Watkins, or a snobbish rival famous for being the girl on the Sunbeam bread label. Colorful without being kitschy Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man recounts a series of great stories that involve runaway mules, little people locked in attics and Southern gay bars. The extended section on the beauty pageant, however, takes the tiara.

Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man. Through Sep. 17. 8 p.m. Tuesday and 2 p.m. Saturday. Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St. 404-607-7469. www.actors-express.com.

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