Two Local Productions Explore Sisterhood and Solidarity

The Hallelujah Girls (now through Sept. 26 at Theatre Knoxville Downtown) is a Woman-Power play. The comedy focuses on the trials of four Southern women "of a certain age" and how they overcome the obstacles that life has put before them. Will Mavis get her spouse to rekindle the fire in their marriage? Can Carlene find husband number four after being widowed three times? Will Nita slap some sense into her habitual thief son? And will Sugar Lee stop Bunny from getting her hands on Sugar's highly successful beauty parlor (the Spa-Dee-Dah!) while finally reconnecting with Bobby Dwane, the ex-fiancé who broke her heart 30 years ago? You bet they will, and in under two hours to boot.

While Lysistrata may have been written 2,500 years ago, the Woman-Power play in America dates from the 1980s, when Crimes of the Heart and Steel Magnolias were being performed in every little theater across the country. The Hallelujah Girls is definitely in the same gene pool. It plays like an extended episode of The Golden Girls, and its message is similar: We are all exceptional individuals, but we need each other to achieve happiness. The dialogue is sitcom smart; if a character says, "That's the most embarrassing thing I've seen," you can rest assured a handyman in hot pants will walk through the door, prompting another character to say, "Until now."

The spirit of Dolly Parton hovers over the proceedings, literally—her photo is high up on one wall of the Spa. Dolly, the patron saint of wish-fulfillment and booty kicking, appears to be the role model for all the women of The Hallelujah Girls. They're never weepy, they're smart and sensitive, and they're fiercely loyal to each other. Dottie Justice (Carlene), Brandon Daughtry Slocum (Nita), Yvonne Fields (Mavis), and especially Amy Hembree (Sugar Lee) play these women without a drop of sentimentality. The whole evening goes down like a serving of grits: warm, smooth, and familiar.

An entirely different kind of sisterhood is on display in Doubt: A Parable (Oak Ridge Playhouse, also until Sept. 26). Sister Aloysius wouldn't be caught dead in the Spa-Dee-Dah!, and the Hallelujah Girls would run screaming from Sister's church, but they both share that sense of confidence in a crisis. However, Sister's dilemma will require more of a solution than a relaxing hour in a sauna.

In the early 1960s, the Catholic Church began a series of reforms designed to, as Tom Lehrer put it, "sell the product." The Latin Mass gave way to English, there was more social outreach, and the church saw itself less as a bulwark against the world and more as a force within it. However, as Doubt explores, more contact with the outside world meant more exposure to complex moral and social issues.

Doubt is, indeed, a parable, and its surface story is a teaching element for a deeper lesson. Aloysius (Lisa Slagle) runs a very tight, traditional Catholic school in the Bronx. When new priest Father Flynn (Zach Best) arrives with his Kennedy-era confidence, she is immediately suspicious of him. When she hears rumors that the father is sharing more than a communion wafer with one of the altar boys, Aloysius takes decisive action. What she will discover, however, is that the problem is far more complicated than the catechism can answer, and her own agenda may require her to commit un-Christian acts.

John Patrick Shanley's writing has always been cleverly subversive; his screenplay of Moonstruck decimated traditional notions of romantic comedy. Here he plants a lot of intellectual and emotional time bombs, and in the end the play tells a bigger story about putting your trust in an institution, indeed in a God, that does not grapple with real-world problems. The realization that Aloysius comes to at the end of the play is devastating.

Director Tony Cedeño's production is swift and stark. He wisely holds off on the high drama until late in the play, and he lays out the action clearly and concisely. The show benefits from Slagle, who is duly imperious and righteous (and has one of the most credible Bronx accents I've heard on any stage). Best's Father Flynn could have used a little more charisma and confidence in his own power, but in his final scene with Slagle his downfall was moving. Truly surprising was Jacqueline Nunweiler as Sister James, Aloysius' young and naïve confidante. Credible from first to last, her fear that the world was coming apart was palpable. Also giving a powerful performance was Robyn VanLeigh as the altar boy's mother. She's on for one scene, and she nailed it.

Women have come a long way in the 50 years of women's liberation, but as Doubt and The Hallelujah Girls show us, sisters can't always do it by themselves.