‘Countergirls’ rides on Southern-fried diction

by Amy Kingsley

Michael Russell, who wrote the current Broach Theater production ‘“Countergirls,’” says he comes from a long line of Southern raconteurs. But he is the first among them to transition from the ancient, shady mountains to Broadway’s bright lights.

‘“More and more this kind of story is disappearing,’” Russell says. ‘“Someone needs to assume the role of the Appalachian storyteller.’”

Russell and director Deborah Kintzing both hail from Tennessee and completed their undergraduate degrees at the University in Knoxville. This production provided an opportunity for the two to rekindle a friendship dormant since the early 1980s.

‘“Once I realized that I knew Michael I started emailing and calling him,’” Kintzing said. ‘“I said, ‘Michael, you have to come down for this.’ It’s been a wonderful renewal of our friendship.’”

Kintzing was slated to direct the December production of ‘“A Tuna Christmas,’” before a national tour kyboshed the theater’s attempts to secure rights to the script. So the theater management switched her to the November production ‘— and handed her Russell’s script. That was the first in a series of serendipitous events culminating in the packed Nov. 2 opening.

‘“This has been a dream production of this show,’” Russell said. ‘“Everybody has been so wonderful.’”

The show itself focuses on the lives of five lunchcounter employees in Clarksville, Tenn. Four of them are the women who take orders and move the plates, and the fifth is the mentally impaired dishwasher Donnie. The first act opens on counter manager Lib Stallsworth channeling Tammy Wynette into a metal spatula ‘— which sets the cluttered stage for the upcoming tale of burgeoning and diminishing dreams.

Stallsworth, played by Winston-Salem native Cinny Strickland in her first appearance at the Broach, anchors the counter and the play. She brokers the peace between gruff old-timer Lynette Henderson and salty divorcee Betty Ruth Williams. Between cease-fires, Strickland finds time to nurture the nascent vocal talent of teenage employee Janita Womsley and adopt dishwasher Donnie Ray Nicely.

‘“There will be a star in your crown come Judgment Day,’” says Williams, played by Lee Strickland, when Stallsworth agrees to house the evicted Nicely.

The script united more than old friends; Cinny Strickland originated the role of Betty Ruth Williams when the play premiered at the Charlotte Repertory Theater in 1990. Fifteen years later she occupies the role of the older Stallsworth ‘— another lucky coincidence for the production.

Russell’s experience with Southern women, especially those in his family, inspired the slate of characters. Each possesses unique talents and quirks, like Nicely’s trademark use of television catchphrases, or Williams’ constant urination urges.

‘“Countergirls’” belongs in the same dramaturgical family as Robert Harling’s ‘“Steel Magnolias,’” a play about the women who frequent a small-town Georgia hair salon. Indeed, the local production shares a number of similarities to the Broadway-play-turned-hit-film beyond the female-centered plot and Southern-fried diction. ‘“Countergirls”” plot turns on an inconceivable coalescence of personal and medical dramas handled by characters seasoned in tempering tragedy with humor. It is ‘“Magnolias’” with a deep fryer instead of a hair drier.

But the belly laughs coming from the opening night audience indicate this play is considerably lighter on the misfortune than Harling’s work. Indeed, the major plot twist concerns whether young Womsley will be able to realize her singing dreams, or if Stallsworth will resurrect a show business career of her own.

Russell nails the colloquialisms pervasive in small Dixie towns before the emergence of a New South. The actors, all of whom live in the area, also successfully own the occasionally awkward verbiage. These are characters familiar to many people who have spent any extended amount of time in the rural South.

Transition music between the scenes both reinforces dreams of showbiz stardom and the regional setting. The sound design leans heavily on the work of Tammy Wynette, and starts with ‘“Stand By Your Man,’” and ‘“D-I-V-O-R-C-E’” in the first act, both of which jab at the indecisive Williams.

A twist at the end of Act II, Scene One, virtually guarantees a happy ending for the staff of the FW Woolworth’s lunch counter, but a few personal decisions still remain. As the characters part ways, one can easily imagine a sequel following any of their paths.

Although playwright Russell has lived in New York City for the past 26 years, at least of few of his 11 career plays have revisited his Volunteer State roots. His first play, ‘“Tennessee Waltz,’” premiered at the same Knoxville theater at which Russell used to watch Saturday morning cartoons.

‘“It was a wonderful homecoming,’” he said.

One of his four works-in-progress is a musical called ‘“Menu,’” which will be his first work optioned for Broadway. He is working with two protégés of the heavy-hitting Broadway composer William Finn, he said. But as in ‘“Countergirls,’” the words will be entirely up to him.

‘“We don’t talk like that anymore, thankfully,’” Russell said about the counter girls’ vernacular. ‘“But the rhythms kind of die hard.’”

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