John Kobasic stars as Aubrey Verdeen and Patricia Bates Smith as LaMerle Verdeen Minshew in the West Coast Players Theatre production of “The Red Velvet Cake War.”
Sweetgum, Texas serves as the setting for the Jones-Hope-Wooten comedy “The Red Velvet Cake War” – and it’s a sure bet that regionalism and local color provide a primary ingredient in this comical concoction.
“The Red Velvet Cake War,” by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, runs through Sunday, Feb. 3, at West Coast Players Theatre, 21905 U.S. 19 N., Clearwater. Tickets are $16. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 2 p.m. Due to popular demand, the theater has added an extra performance, set for Saturday, Feb. 9, 2 p.m.
It’s no surprise audiences have relished this deliciously droll production: West Coast Players has taken a recipe for Southern-fried fun and perfected it, bringing to the stage a zany assortment of consummately rendered characters. Directed by Ashlie Ann Johnson, current vice president of West Coast Players Theatre, “The Red Velvet Cake War” is far more than slapstick and rapid-fire one-liners. Johnson and her able cast have managed to get at the very heart of the play’s idiosyncratic characters.
The story revolves around the Verdeen family, and, in particular, the three Verdeen cousins, Gaynelle, Peaches and Jimmie Wyvette. As the play opens, the audience learns Gaynelle is the center of attention in Sweetgum, having “accidentally” driven her minivan through the bedroom wall of her ex-husband’s girlfriend’s doublewide. With gossip swirling, the self-righteous, self-appointed matriarch of the Verdeen clan, Aunt LaMerle, decides to cancel the annual family reunion. In fact, LaMerle seizes upon the situation to go on a crusade against members of the family she sees as inferior: namely, Gaynelle, recently incarcerated and soon-to-be evaluated by a psychologist; Peaches, a saucy firebrand who works as a mortuary cosmetologist; and Jimmie Wyvette, the rough-around-the-edges store manager of Whatley’s Western Wear.
But the three Verdeen cousins have their own plan: They decide to host the family reunion themselves, to restore Gaynelle’s confidence and to humiliate LaMerle. When LaMerle discovers their intentions, a high-stakes bet is made involving who can make the tastiest red velvet cake … and if Gaynelle loses, her house goes to LaMerle.
Set in the middle of Texas tornado season, the action quickly spins out of control as the fast-paced plot speeds toward the hysterical showdown.
Janice Creneti stars Gaynelle Verdeen Bodeen. Creneti is a talented area actress who has appeared on stage at West Coast Players on several occasions, including an award-winning turn as Leona in “Small Craft Warnings.” As Gaynelle, she captures the heartache, frustration and fury of a woman scorned without sacrificing the character’s core congeniality. It’s easy for the audience to empathize with Creneti’s Gaynelle – and it’s easy to laugh with her as she struggles to get back on her feet.
Cherie Albury plays Peaches Verdeen Belrose who’s dealing with her own frustrations: Peaches’ trucker husband has been missing for years, leaving her with unfulfilled needs. Albury is delightfully shameless as Peaches finds the time to lust after a one-eyed delivery man in the midst of the madness.
Lisa O'Brien practically steals the show. O’Brien, portraying tomboyish Jimmie Wyvette Verdeen, is about as spot-on as it gets. O’Brien has excellent comic timing, a strong stage presence, humorous physicality and faultless facial expressions. In a show that boasts many gifted actors, O’Brien still manages to mesmerize the audience in nearly every scene in which she appears.
Patricia Bates Smith has imbued LaMerle Verdeen Minshew with a perfect blend of vanity and despotism. Beneath the thin veneer of Southern charm, Smith conceals the rattlesnake that is LaMerle – and the audience senses that her venom is lethal.
Many other actors turn in great performances in this production of “The Red Velvet Cake War,” including Donna Donnelly as Elsa Dowdall, John Kobasic as Aubrey Verdeen and Jessica Burchfield as Bitsy Hargis. John Timberlake portrays the one-eyed deliveryman Newt Blaylock, whose glass eye ends up in the oddest places throughout the show. Mabel LaCola, who has worked behind the scenes for years at West Coast Players, takes to the stage as Mama Doll Hargis. Colleen Coughenour, a drama teacher at Lakewood High School, plays Cee Cee Windham, host of the Texas community television show “Hospitality House.” Rick Bronson’s physical comedy in two roles had audience members laughing uncontrollably. Bronson plays both Purvis Verdeen, a wonderfully weird death-obsessed relative; as well as the highly-strung sheriff of Sweetgum, Grover Lout.
“It can be said that nobody laughs as hard, fights as viciously or loves as deeply as a family,” Johnson wrote in her notes from the director. “While the hilarious antics will tickle your funny bone and leave you rolling in the aisles, I know you also will find that the loving bonds of this family also tug at your heartstrings.”
The West Coast Players Theatre of “The Red Velvet Cake War” lives up to that promise, introducing audiences to a dysfunctional Southern family filled with eccentric characters skillfully depicted by an ensemble cast.