Veterans praise return of ‘Southern Exposure’ to Natchez Little Theatre stage for 2003 Pilgrimage season

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Veterans of &uot;Southern Exposure&uot; give a thumbs up to the 2003 cast and production of the popular play that once again will be offered at Natchez Little Theatre during Spring Pilgrimage.

Bennie Boone, who first appeared as a tourist in the 1972 production of the Owen Crump play and went on to play the role of Carol for many years after that, said the play has settled into what she believes the playwright meant it to be.

&uot;The play has been done over the years in caricature, and this year it is more like real life,&uot; said Boone, who this year plays Mary Belle Tucker, the tour guide, a role she loves and had always coveted.

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Charles Conner Burns, who this year goes into his 38th season as Avery Randall, agreed. &uot;I think we’re playing the play the way he wrote it,&uot; Burns said of Crump. &uot;Through the years, a lot of people took liberties with the play.&uot;

The play captures Natchez in a unique way, Burns said. &uot;Owen Crump was in Natchez for only two weeks, and I think he got his finger on the pulse of Natchez.&uot;

The Natchez Little Theatre first produced the play in 1951, only a year after the play opened on Broadway for a short run in 1950. In the early 1960s, the NLT began trying to offer the play each spring.

Director Layne Taylor said when the NLT board asked him to direct the play and give it new life, he read &uot;Southern Exposure&uot; objectively and found it &uot;a wonderfully sweet romantic comedy.&uot;

&uot;It always had been described to me as making fun of the character Penelope Mayweather,&uot; Taylor said. &uot;I didn’t see it that way. I saw Natchez in the 1950s, a sweeter and more innocent time.&uot;

The play is about a &uot;Natchez lady,&uot; he said. &uot;And to me the mystique, success and survival of Natchez, as history shows, has been its women. They saved the town during the Civil War and economically they came to the rescue of Natchez in the 1930s. And it will be the women of Natchez who will save it in the 21st century.&uot;

For the first time, an African-American actress is playing the part of Australia. Furthermore, several other African-Americans are featured as tourists in some of the most crucial scenes in the play.

Arlana Deal makes her debut with the theater group in the role of Australia. &uot;She is vivacious and bubbly and is the backbone of the play,&uot; Taylor said. &uot;She has wisdom, and she is loyal in all times. She is the rock that allows Mayweather Hall to remain in existence.&uot;

Although Penelope is the pivotal character, Australia is the glue, Boone said.

&uot;This year the part is played the way we’ve always thought the author meant her to be,&uot; Boone said. &uot;She is a friend and a protector. She’s going to make sure Miss Penelope is going to be OK, even though Miss Penelope is not very savvy. Australia is the savvy one.&uot;

What’s more, the part as portrayed by newcomer Deal gives the audience a sense of the love that Australia feels for Penelope.

Like Taylor, Boone sees the sweetness in the script. She also sees the real sadness of a woman &uot;trapped by an era in the small Southern town where women of privilege were pampered, protected and sheltered.&uot;

Still, Penelope surprises the audience. &uot;She had that oomph about her that she had to keep under wraps all those years,&uot; Boone said.

Penelope is played by Dawn Taylor, mother of the director. Layne Taylor said he was nervous about directing his mother in a play, but a large casting committee told him when she tried out, &uot;There is your Penelope.&uot;

And it is true, he said. &uot;She has given the role a unique interpretation, and I think people will like her. She’s a beautiful lady, and I read the part as one of a beautiful lady.&uot;

The tourists in the play have been impressive in their acting and their dedication to the project, Taylor said. &uot;They are marvelous. They’re very principal to the play. Without tourists, you don’t have Pilgrimage. And with the tourists, you do not have a play.&uot;

Taylor said he has staged the tourists to be important because they are important. &uot;Some play more than one role, but you’d never know it because they are so good.&uot;

Boone said the cast of tourists also has been impressive in the time they have devoted to rehearsals during the last two months.

&uot;The tourists are integral parts. And we have a wonderful group,&uot; Boone said. &uot;They don’t have the line loads but they have to commit the same amount of time.&uot;