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Theater Review: A Coming of Age for Atlanta and ‘The Geller Girls’

IMG_0558ATLANTA – “Today the world came to Atlanta. Right now as I write you there are cannibals in the park. I’m not exaggerating. And there are Eskimos and camels and Amazon women and matadors with bulls…,” 17-year-old Louisa Geller excitedly says through a letter to her beau in Janece Shaffer’s beautiful new play The Geller Girls.

Louisa’s playful and loving father Albert (played by the formerly Nashville-based actor Mark Cabus) marvels at how Atlanta’s changed since the combative days of his Civil War youth: “You know, it’s hard to believe that right where they’re selling peanuts and lemonade, thirty years ago we were killin’ each other – I was fightin’ right there. But now – we don’t care. You got a dollar in your pocket – welcome to Atlanta.”

_MG_3482The comedy-drama now making its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre shines its superlative light on a coming-of-age moment for idealistic Louisa (Nashville native Ann Marie Gideon), her business-savvy older sister Rosalee (Courtney Patterson) and the city that was heralded as the capital of the New South in 1895 when it hosted a 100-day Cotton States and International Exposition. That exposition was where luminaries like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Booker T. Washington eloquently spoke and Hoochie Coochie Girls scandalously moved their hips while daring to show their ankles.

As the excitement of the exposition swirls around the Gellers generational tensions that have lurked beneath the surface are revealed when the cousin of Albert’s very Old South wife – and Louisa and Rosalee’s stepmother – Sarahann (Courtenay Collins) comes to town. Charles Heyman (Joe Sykes) makes it annoying clear that he feels his native New York is vastly superior to Atlanta, and he encourages Louisa and Rosalee to consider different paths from the ones Albert and Sarahann prefer for them. When the dreams of different generations collide, what will be the result?

_MG_3737For more than one reason, it’s easy, far too easy, to compare this work with another fine look at an Atlanta Jewish family, Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo. But Shaffer’s distinct voice dismisses that comparison as superficial, and while her play certainly adds another wonderful entry to the canon of plays (for there are several others) about life in ATL, it deserves its own place under the Peachtree sun.

Shaffer carefully reveals what makes her characters tick; she compels us to enter and journey through the play’s world by not revealing too much too soon. The exposition and Charles’ arrival spark the show’s flames, but wisely the focus stays on the titular characters and their household: there large themes of love, relationships and change are explored in moving microcosm. And the playwright’s balance between comedy and drama pays wonderful dividends for the audience, particularly in the scene where Charles brings a gift to Louisa that has Sarahann seething.

IMG_0656The actors that bring Shaffer’s story to life are sublime. Gideon and Patterson clearly chart the emotional and practical challenges their young women face; beneath the facades of their characters Cabus and Collins reveal the wounds, burdens and fears Albert and Sarahann have collected over the years; Sykes is able (particularly in the second act as his involvement with the Gellers grows) to engender understanding for a character that could have been far less interesting in less capable hands than his. It would be hard to imagine anyone casting a stronger ensemble than the one assembled for this production.

Artistic Director Susan V. Booth masterfully helms this production. She allows each beat to fall as it gracefully should in, out, around and between incredible house and fabric shop sets (as well as lights cleverly representing features of the exposition) designed and richly detailed by Collette Pollard that track upstage and down. Those sets are impeccably lit by the expertise of Ken Yunker.

IMG_0702Other terrific components are the late-Victorian costumes fashioned by Linda Roethke and the wonderful vitality of Clay Benning’s music. The Alliance, which won the 2007 Regional Theatre Tony Award, certainly maintains its reputation for top-quality production elements and stellar storytelling with The Geller Girls ; this well-told tale is as welcome as a breeze through the magnolia blossoms.

The world premiere of Janece Shaffer’s The Geller Girls directed by Susan V. Booth continues at the Alliance Theatre in the Woodruff Arts Center (1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta) continues through Feb. 9. There are performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays (the Jan. 28 performance is cancelled due to inclement weather), 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets ($25-$65) and more info are available by calling (404) 733-5000 or visiting alliancetheatre.org. Note: Some content may be inappropriate for children under age 11.

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*Photos by Jeff Roffman courtesy Alliance Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).