Act 1, Scene 1… It’s real life

Published 2:37 am Sunday, February 6, 2011

You have to find yourself in one of the characters to really enjoy a play.

In “The Dixie Swim Club,” a poignant comedy, I identified with Dinah, who knew exactly what she was doing professionally but traditionally made a mess of most things personal.

The play is about five women who bond on a college swim team and, for decades afterward, meet at a cozy cottage on a North Carolina beach once a year to compare notes. Director Cheryl Sproles let me watch dress rehearsal because — you guessed it — I was headed to the beach to meet with college friends the weekend the play opened. I would miss the official performances.

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I loved it. Actresses Renee Baldwin, Merrie Hughes, Lisa Kimes, Lynn Nelson and Robin Haire aged convincingly and comically over three acts and 33 years. It was theater as good as I’ve seen in New York, even minus a full audience.

The characters were the usual suspects that emerge whenever writers depict women. There was the sex kitten, the serious career woman, the incorrigible organizer, the mother with nothing but bad children and luck, and the innocent who needs the others to take care of her.

Never mind that in real women you usually get all of these qualities rolled into one person. It makes for better theater to divvy up personalities and quirks.

In the end, Dinah dies. Somebody has to. Never the one you’re set up to expect to die. That’s not how drama works.

While there were no pregnant nuns or mothers with sons in jail at the beach party I attended, you could make the case that life was following art. My friends and I sat on a veranda overlooking a Mississippi back bay, and I kept thinking it wouldn’t be that hard to write a play about our group. Hmmm.

There were five women at our beach house, though our ages ranged from 56 to 82 and we didn’t all meet at school. I’d also have to work a couple of men and a dinner guest or two into my plot, but, for play purposes, they’re extraneous.

Betty could be the organizer, the team captain if you will. A diplomat-turned-contractor, her life’s been interesting enough to warrant its own play. And if you were casting a movie that naturally followed such a wonderful stage production, there’d be no question. Jane Fonda would have to be Betty.

Janie, the academic and scientist, would get all the sage lines. She identifies all the flora and fauna and shows us how to call up the owls. Put in a call to Debra Winger.

Sandy would play the innocent. She has that vulnerability that makes us all want to meddle and fix things up for her. A Mary-Louise Parker type.

I don’t think I’m objective enough to cast myself, but I wouldn’t holler if Jessica Lange was available. If not, we could check with Meryl Streep. It’s going to take an actress with lots of range.

Cornelia — who, at age 82, outlasts, outdrinks and, play or no play, entertains us all — definitely would be the comic relief. She could play herself.