Produced in 1980, Beth Henley’s Southern Literature comedy, The Miss Firecracker Contest, is still culturally relevant. In a year where so many pageants, including Miss USA and Miss America still exist, there is enjoyment to be had in watching a play that pokes fun at a protagonist who is obsessed with a popular beauty contest.
Set during a summer in Brookhaven, Mississippi, in the 1980s, Carnelle Scott (Samantha Ginn) is a high spirited loser with a humiliating past. She desperately wants to enter The Miss Firecracker Contest. Not a lot of people think she can succeed, including her deeply flawed cousins Elain Rutledge (Kristin Woodburn) and Delmount Williams (Justin Lang). With the help of a seamstress who becomes her friend, Popeye Jackson (Melissa Coleman-Reed), Carnelle believes that she has what it takes to win the title.
Henley’s script moves at a snails pace, with Act I focusing on the messed up lives of the three cousins and Popeye. Carnelle, Elain, Popeye and Delmount are such interesting people, that it does not matter that the contest is barely mentioned for long periods of time.
Act II is more action packed with the cousins trying to come to terms with the present. There are plenty of heated arguments, mixed in with slapstick, comic schadenfreude, family bonding and unconventional romance.
Daren Scott directs The Miss Firecracker Contest in a deliberately stylish and over the top way. Some of the most memorable moments of direction are fantasy sequences where Carnelle imagines herself competing in the pageant, with patriotic music and sound effects in the background.
Not only does Robert May’s sound design and Chris Renda’s lighting design stand out during Carnelle’s daydreaming, but they also work with Scott, to stage hilariously campy introductions to Popeye, Delmount and Elain. Their grand entrances add to the broad tone of the story.
Kacia Castelli’s costume design reflects the personas of the residents of small-town Mississippi, from the spoiled Elain to the geeky Popeye. Carnelle does get to wear different costumes, but they are meant to be funny and not dazzling.
Co-founder and Executive Artistic Director of New Village Arts, Kristianne Kurner’s scenic design symbolizes Carnelle’s opinion that winning the contest will give her a sense of pride. A gigantic American flag in the back of the stage coupled with huge photos of pageant contestants, quickly make it clear that Carnelle takes the event way too seriously.
Ginn is uncomfortably hilarious as a down on her luck 24-year-old immature adult. It is a difficult comedic role that requires her to make the audience laugh at her in many embarrassing situations. She pulls it off, because Ginn plays Carnelle so sincerely that you cannot help but want her to succeed.
Coleman-Reed plays Popeye with an appropriate mixture of sweetness and subtle eccentricity. Henley’s dialogue for Carnelle’s newfound chum is sometimes too unusual, since she is given several extended monologues that are delivered at awkward times. However, this does not get in the way of Coleman-Reed’s performance. Popeye’s attempts to flirt with Delmount are goofy and fun to watch, thanks to Coleman-Reed and Lang’s priceless reactions.
The climax of The Miss Firecracker Contest is surprising and unpredictable. Yet, Henley’s epilogue drags since it focuses too much on Tessy, Delmount and Popeye, instead of the energetic and kooky Carnelle. In spite of this, the very final conversation does end events on a satisfying note.
Although it’s not quite a comedy classic, The Miss Firecracker Contest does have enough enjoyable humor to appeal to fans of Henley and the ensemble. Even people who look down upon beauty contests might find something to appreciate in the interpretation.