backstage (2006-24)

Post-nuptial Hiss

Cordiality is the South’s golden rule, except when it comes to divorce

by Leslie Wylie

"The year before we got married,” Walter Bander recollects with a nostalgic sigh, “now those were good times.”

The steam rises in ex-wife Eleanor’s Southern drawl as she defends their now-defunct marriage, pointing to a picture of them as a young couple in an old photo album. “Look at us!” she screeches defiantly. “We were smiling! We were happy!”

Walter peers at the presented evidence with skepticism. “In 10 years of marriage, you’re bound to have a few moments of happiness,” he explains, nonplussed by Eleanor’s histrionics. “It’s the law of averages.”

So it goes in the Theatre Knoxville production of Divorce Southern Style , a no-holds-barred exposé of what happens when wedding rings hit the fan. Its cast of characters, each more dysfunctional than the last, spans the gamut of marital experience. Some are on their way to the altar; a stampede of others are running away. But there’s something about the sound of “I do” that keeps them coming back for more.

Take Eleanor (Lisa Slagle) and Walter (Joe Jaynes), for instance. Fifteen years after their divorce, on the eve of their own daughter Elizabeth’s wedding, Eleanor is having second thoughts about her decision to kick Walter to the curb. “I’m 46 going on destitute… under-skilled and over-aged… a winter chicken,” moans the just-over-the-hill Southern belle to her novelist friend, Elma Blue (Pat Fitch). When Elma Blue asks Eleanor why she got divorced in the first place, Eleanor’s explanation has the intonation of a debutante with a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. “I was tired of being married,” she exhales dramatically. “I felt like I’d gotten the good out of it.”

While Elma Blue is financially successful, she’s got no fewer than three divorces under her own belt. Rather than dwelling on them, however, she prefers to drown her own time-soggy memories in bourbon—a habit that Eleanor, though a ferocious bourbon imbiber herself, is apt to chide her for. “You know, drinking does not clear up your thinking like you think it does,” she tsks, pouring her another drink. “No,” Elma Blue responds with deadpan wit, “but it does crystallize my thoughts.”   

After an afternoon of half-hearted card games and cocktails, Eleanor stumbles onto the bright idea that she should get back with her ex-husband. Since he’s loaded, he could help her get back on her fiscal feet; she married him for love the first time, Eleanor recalls, and she wasn’t going to make that mistake again. She places a long-distance call to New York, where Walter now lives, and encourages him to make a trip back to Charlotte—to meet Elizabeth’s fiancé, Vince, of course. After all, she quips knowingly, Vince was going to be the father of Walter’s grandchildren.

Could Elizabeth be pregnant? Walter panics and takes the next flight out of New York, arriving at his ex-wife’s house just in time for what gradually develops into a three-ring circus of miscommunication. As Eleanor embarks upon her plan to win back Walter’s affections, the feisty young Elizabeth (Kathryn Hale) breaks off her own wedding with mild-mannered, loving fiancé Vince (Robert McDonald III)—like mother, like daughter. 

To complicate matters, Walter’s new girlfriend Gretchen (Sandra Walker), who happens to be Eleanor’s flirtatious high-school rival, shows up to toss her own two cents into the wellspring of chaos, rekindling Eleanor’s disaffections for her: “She had a crush on anything with pants. Even I was scared to wear pants around her!” she recalls.

Meanwhile, Eleanor’s blubbering optometrist Dr. Abernathy (Gary Mullins) unwittingly adds to the confusion, attempting to woo Eleanor even as she’s in the process of wooing Walter. “It’s not often I get the chance to be alone with such a beautiful, intelligent young woman,” he swoons, chasing a horrified Eleanor around her living room couch. “I bet it isn’t,” she mutters.

The play, penned by Jennifer Jarret, is a tightly knit verbal sweater of double entendres and tongue-in-cheek humor, and director Ben Harville’s Theatre Knoxville production steps the script up a notch with superb acting and clever presentation. Each of the players is confident and colorful in his or her role, and the flowery pink set that constitutes Eleanor’s living room creates a visual nausea that perfectly punctuates the old Southern, well-to-do atmosphere that she calls home. Of course, it doubles as a breeding ground for single-female pathos: In a world of sweet-tea parties and church picnics, who wants to be an old maid?

The possibility is clearly a threat in Eleanor’s mind. As far as she’s concerned, it’s white lace and promises, or it’s bust. Unfortunately, when it comes to Walter, it’s mostly bust. “Why were you kissing me if you weren’t going to propose?” she wails upon discovering that Walter’s latest romantic gesture didn’t necessarily have a ring attached. “We’re too old to be kissing people indiscriminately!”

Will she eat her words by the end of the play? Will the tea she washes them down with be spiked with bourbon? Yes, and yes, respectively.

What: Divorce Southern Style