See the new south: New director re-imagines Pilgrimage standard
Natchez Little Theatre hopes this year to expose viewers to a side of its annual Spring Pilgrimage production they’ve never seen before.
“Southern Exposure,” NLT’s traditional Pilgrimage season play, will open for the 52nd time Saturday, but this year it has been reimagined and is under the fresh hand of a new director, Bo Allen, who is making his NLT directorial debut.
This is the first time since 2002 that neither NLT Artistic Direct nor Layne Taylor or Technical Director Don Vesterse has directed the show. Prior to that, Lynn Mann had directed it for a number of years.
“Bo has been an active volunteer with the theater for numerous years, and has assistant directed with us before,” Taylor said. “We felt it was time for him to get into directing — we are training the new directors to carry us into the future, and with 81 years of history behind us, we want to make sure there are another 81 years.”
“Southern Exposure” tells the story of Penelope Mayweather, a formerly beautiful Natchez belle trying to save her home, Mayweather Hall, from financial ruin. She takes on a boarder — John Salguod — only to have to hide his identity because he was the author who wrote a best-selling book that was banned in Natchez because locals considered it libelous. The situation is further complicated when her young cousin Carol comes to spend the night.
With a fresh set of directorial eyes looking at the script, Allen has reenvisioned the show in a way that he hopes will give audiences already familiar with the long-running show a new perspective on it. Allen’s changes include completely recreating the set, changing how characters interact with the setting and — though he didn’t change a word of the script — giving a new take on the characters themselves, often taking cues from the dialogue.
“Instead of just saying the words, the actors use the words as part of the characters, the scene,” Allen said. “For example, in the past, the character of Penelope has been played as very demure and proper, but I directed it to where she gets a little drunk, a little tipsy, and it adds a lot of color.”
Likewise, the character of John has been reinterpreted as a 1950s hipster.
“Previously, John was always played as a sweet guy,” Allen said. “I wanted to make him a little more sinister in the beginning, and then become a guy who falls in love and changes a little, and really becomes a man with a purpose.”
Though it’s his first time at the helm, it’s not Allen’s first time in the show. Last season, he played the character of Avery Randall, a role he will reprise this year as actor-director. When Allen is on stage, he said he takes notes from Vesterse, who serves as assistant director for the production.
“When I was doing the show last year, I had all these visions of what it could be, but at the time I was an actor, and as an actor I respected the director’s decisions,” Allen said. “When it came to it, all those visions played out very well.”
Because “Southern Exposure” runs four nights a week, it has two casts. One cast performs on Tuesdays and Thursdays; the other cast performs on Saturdays and Sundays.
“Some of the actors are in both casts, but are in different roles,” Allen said. “The two Penelopes are extremely different, and I love that because I don’t want it to be the exact show — if the audience comes to both sows, it will be the same show, but it will be different.”
Actor Dwight Williams plays the character of John in both casts, and he said Allen’s approach to the show is very hands-on.
“We have incorporated some slapstick into the character, trying to make him not so stiff — after all, this is a comedy,” Williams said. “Hopefully making it new will help bring in local people — as well as tourists — who haven’t been (to “Southern Exposure”) in a while.”
Taylor said ticket pre-sales and reservations for the show’s 21 performances are ahead of where they were this time last year.
“We have a lot of folks who do come back to see “Southern Exposure’ year after year,” Taylor said.
“It is the perfect play for this town, for this period because it is light, family friendly entertainment with some good tongue-in-cheek adult references that aren’t offensive.”
The fact that he has taken the lead of NLT’s best-known and most-seen show hasn’t been lost on Allen.
“I feel it is a privilege and an honor that the theater has entrusted this show to me,” he said.
Performances of “Southern Exposure” will be at 7:30 p.m. every Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, beginning Saturday and running through April 9.
Tickets are $15, and can be purchased online at www.natchezlittletheatre.org or by calling 601-442-2233.
A special benefit and preview performance with proceeds benefitting the Natchez Lions Club will be at 7 p.m. Friday. Tickets for the benefit performance will be $10.
The box office opens one hour before each performance begins.