Given its "sorority" sort of feel, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's The Dixie Swim Club - which concerns the annual, beach-cabin gatherings of five former members of a college swim team - will likely appeal to the women in the audience. However, not being a woman myself, I can also say that I quite enjoyed Friday's performance of the show for the chemistry between the actors, the stunning set, and the humor that playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten put into their comedy.
Designer Susan D. Holgersson's playing area clearly establishes the production's setting before it even begins. Her seaside cabin, which boasts antique white and deep-aqua striped walls, a loft, large windows, and even a steamer trunk, makes it apparent that the story is set on an ocean beach - one likely on the East Coast, given the color scheme. And her creation is just as striking as her dilapidated theatre was for Circa '21's Southern Crossroads earlier this year.
Once the play starts, and the set's locale is confirmed, director Jim Hesselman takes us to the first of The Dixie Swim Club's annual lakeside get-togethers, in which former swim-teammates enjoy a weekend of companionship and swim in the Atlantic Ocean. Carrie SaLoutos' Sheree was the team captain in college, and 22, 27, 33, and 56 years later - the time frame covered in the course of the play - she continues to be the one to take care of her team by arranging the rental, organizing the meals, and planning the weekend schedules. Autumn O'Ryan - whose jovial Mrs. Claus in Holly Jolly Christmas I still clearly remember three years after the show graced the Circa '21 stage - plays Dinah, a brassy but fun-loving lawyer. Lora Adams gets to show off her sexier side as the serial bride Lexie, yet manages to avoid portraying her as a stereotypical slut jumping from man to (younger) man while undergoing more and more cosmetic surgery along the way. Lexie could be unbearably stuck up, but through Adams' nuanced characterization, it's clear why Lexie is still adored by the rest of the ladies, and Serena Vesper, too, is likable for her former nun Jeri Neal's ever-joyful nature.
It is Rachelle Walljasper's Vernadette, though, whose presence sets the tone for this touching comedy. Whenever the plot gets a bit too dry or even a bit dull - as when Jeri Neal explains why she decided to get pregnant, or Lexie talks about yet another divorce - Walljasper's somewhat trashy victim of domestic abuse (at the hands of a really trashy husband) delivers a whopper of a funny line. What I love about Walljasper, in every performance of hers I've seen, is the actor's ability to play endearingly dimwitted yet absolutely sincere characters. While Vernadette does crack herself up at times, Walljasper tends toward underplaying jokes as if she doesn't know that what she's saying is funny, and her unassuming nature makes them even funnier; it's as if she's an accidental comedian. Her Vernadette just says it like she sees it and, in so doing, manages to be hilarious. (At one point, Vernadette says that she thinks the problem with husbands is that "they're always saying they'll die for you, but they never do.")
While I think the comparisons between the lessons learned in the show and the women's experiences on their old swim team are a bit forced - and, therefore, rather annoying - I still quite liked Circa '21's The Dixie Swim Club. The sincerity in Hesselman's production kept me interested in what would happen to the play's characters, while the humor, particularly when delivered by Walljasper, had me laughing more than enough to walk away from the evening's entertainment with a satisfied smile on my face.
The Dixie Swim Club runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through September 15, and information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.