Pilgrimage with a punch

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Penelope Mayweather is frantic, frazzled and frustrated.

She has a secret and with Natchez’s Spring Pilgrimage in full swing it could be exposed.

Her desperate attempt to keep her secret under wraps and the drama that comes with that are the story behind Natchez Little Theatre’s annual production of “Southern Exposure.”

“It is a play to make a little fun of ourselves,” said Layne Taylor, executive and artistic director of Natchez Little Theatre. “It isn’t meant to hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone. It is just a fun laugh at what we do.”

NLT first produced the play in 1951, one year after it premiered on Broadway at the Baltimore Theatre, and has produced it each year during Spring Pilgrimage since 1963.

The play is a 1950s romantic comedy that tells the story Penelope Mayweather, owner of the antebellum house Mayweather Hall, and her struggles to maintain the house and deal with the eccentric tourists that are paraded through her house at 50 cents a head.

And if that wasn’t enough, Penelope has taken on a boarder who isn’t all-together truthful about his intentions or his identity.

The cast hits the stage at 8 p.m. each Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday until April 10. The play will wrap up with a 2 p.m. matinee performance on Sunday, April 11. Tickets are $15 each and available by calling the Natchez Little Theatre office at 601-442-2233 or 1-800-440-2233.

Taylor said the play has an equal following among locals and tourists.

“Tourists love it more and are more rowdy after a full-day of home tours because at that point they get it. They get the jokes,” Taylor said. “And locals, in recent years, have really embraced the play because it is fun for them to sit and try to figure out who the characters are patterned after.”

Penelope Mayweather’s boarder, John Salgoud, is a writer who is in town researching the culture for his next book. In Natchez in the early 1950s, having a boarder could mean social humiliation for Penelope, but financial woes make the arrangement appealing and after a bit of convincing by Salgoud , she relents and allows him to sleep in “the Senator’s room” for $50 a week.

And while Mayweather believes hiding Salgoud’s presence during the parade of tourists will be her biggest problem, her level of panic is amplified when her favorite niece, Carol Randall, begins sneaking out of her house and secretly spending the night at Mayweather Hall.

Because there are nearly 30 showings of the play during Spring Pilgrimage, it has been double cast. Director Don Vesterse, who also plays the role of book publisher Benjamin Carter, said the difficulties of working with a large, double cast were only exacerbated by a short time on stage before opening night.

“We only had four days between this play and (‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’),” he said. “That meant four days to build the set and get things right on stage.”

Vesterse has directed the play four times and he said this year has been the most stressful, but he said, having several performances under his belt this time around, the process isn’t all stress and no fun.

“It is enjoyable when you see everything come together,” Vesterse said. “That usually happens on the first night. When that happens you can sit back and enjoy it.”

Making the preparation for the play easier is a veteran cast of actors and actresses.

“Our actors love this play and keep coming back each year for it,” Taylor said. “Many of them have been playing these particular roles for years or have had other parts in this play.”

Lynn Mann, who shares the role of Penelope Mayweather with Carolyn “Tootsie” Yelverton, said she has portrayed Penelope so many times the two women are like one person.

“Penelope is my alter ego,” she said. “ As soon as I put on the eyelashes and wig, I am Penelope.”

Over the years, Mann has played a variety of roles in the play and joked that she could practically step into any role needed.

“I’ve been doing this so long the lines just stay with me,” she said. “I think I know every line in the entire play.”

While she loves her role in the play, Mann said she is never really sad to see the play end.

“I know Penelope will be back next year, so I’m OK when the play is over,” she said. “I say nearly every year I’m not going to do it again, but I know, as long as I’m physically able, I’ll keep doing it.”