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Nashville Scene Southern Discomfort

Nashville company debuts Alabama playwright's latest dark comedy

By Angela Wibking

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  In The Camellia Ball, the married couples who get together for a night of fun and games in a small Southern town make George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? look almost tame. But then, George and Martha weren't inspired by the real-life, stranger-than-fiction characters that populate the South.

"It all started at a party a few years ago," says Alabama playwright Randy Hall of the roots of his dark new comedy. "A lot of my old high school classmates were there, and then a couple we all knew walked in. They were looking very tense, and I thought, 'This marriage is in trouble.' Sure enough, he was having an affair with her best friend." When another childhood buddy of Hall's got a divorce, the playwright watched in horror as the split brought out the worst in the couple. "They both just turned into animals--ramming each other's cars and things like that. There was also a surgeon who made the local news when he bought his mistress a Mercedes and had the plates customized for her. The dealer delivered it to the man's home by mistake, and the wife took a hammer to it. The mistress sued her for damages and won."

All this antagonism between the sexes, plus a desire to explore a character mentioned in a previous work, led Hall to write The Camellia Ball. The play's central character is Melissa Medders Sparks, whose social-climbing mother Inez Medders was a key figure in Hall's The Widow's Best Friend.

"A lot of playwrights and filmmakers focus on the beginning of love stories," says Sparks. "Not nearly as many look at letting go of a relationship, at how you walk away when it isn't working out. This play is a dark farce about that--and about forgiveness."

In the first act, subtitled "The Night of the Little Black Dresses," three couples and a couple of singles from the country club set of Persepolis, Ga.--a mythical town two hours from Atlanta--have gathered for cocktails before the social event of the season, the Camellia Ball. Fueled with alcohol, baked ham, and lemon squares, the partygoers confront divorce, infidelity, and socially ambitious building contractors in the course of the first act and then return in Act 2 for some knockout punches in the battle of the sexes. "One of the things the play explores," Sparks says, "is what happens when people--even really decent ones--are pushed to their limits. It's not that these characters are unlikable, it's that they all get pushed to the edge."

These pillars of Persepolis' Baby Boomer society include Mike and Beverly, the party hosts and a couple apparently devoted to each other and to the community. She's the director of the local Girl Scout Council, and he's a former photographer for The Persepolis Firebrand-Herald who now runs his own commercial photography studio. Guests Kay and Griff are also plugged into the community, if not each other. Griff has eyes for Melissa, though he lacks the nerve to follow through on his adulterous urges. Melissa is in the midst of a tense divorce from John, a handsome and successful Persepolis lawyer. It doesn't help that he's at the party too. Even worse, though, is that someone invited Carol, whom Melissa discovered in bed with John around the time of last year's Camellia Ball. Then there's Darrell, a sexy young building contractor whose skills seem most in demand in the bedrooms of Persepolis--and who is Melissa's escort for the evening.

"In Widow we heard about Melissa as this sort of Frankenstein daughter Inez Medders had created--a golden child who made it to Glory Hill, which is to Persepolis what Belle Meade is to Nashville," Sparks says. "In this play, we get to meet her." Hall goes so far as to say the character simply demanded her own forum. "Melissa, who was deeply maligned in Widow, insisted on having her say, and The Camellia Ball is the result."

The action of the play transpires in a room at the back of Beverly and Mike's "executive ranch"-style home. Through doors leading into the room, we hear--but never see--the cocktail party in progress at the front of the house. "The set designer asked me if this was a door-slamming farce," says Sparks. "I said it was more of door-shutting farce. The transitions do come very quickly, but it's not as absurd or frenetically paced as those British door-slamming, sofa-jumping, guys-in-drag farces."

Sparks was raised in upstate New York but has no trouble identifying with the uniquely Southern characters and situations in the play. "The South is culturally different from my upbringing, but I can relate to these characters because I've never felt that being rich necessarily corrupts. So I didn't come to the play with a contempt for the country club set that apparently some people who have read the play have had."

"I think the play transcends being 'Southern' because the themes of forgiveness and moving on are universal," says Sparks. "I used to say about myself that I needed to stop going out with people I don't like and hanging on until they hate me. Everyone has a romance, a friendship, or even a job that they held onto for too long. It's part of all of our lives, and this play says, 'Let's look at that.' "

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