Every once in a while, I find myself missing “chick flicks,” whether they’re “romcoms” or ensemble pieces of the feel-good variety. I miss movies and media with a distinct three-act structure. I miss seeing stories that are genuinely funny with a sad center and a good resolution. Movies such as Music and Lyrics, Julie and Julia, Bridget Jones’s Diary, 50 First Dates, Miss Congeniality, and The First Wives Club.
When I saw Women’s Theatre Festival’s production of Maribeth McCarthy’s Sweet Tea & Baby Dreams, a play about a baby shower where nothing goes right, I remembered that genre was what I was missing. From razor-sharp comedic zingers to the “punch in the feels” that is the second act, McCarthy’s newest work could be mistaken for a Nora Ephron screenplay. Also unlike how many chick flicks are described as formulaic, McCarthy’s work manages to let you intimately into the characters’ lives and surprise you with shocking moments.
Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams is an emotional and hilarious ride that takes you through the ins and outs of family drama, often in ways you don’t suspect. While I would like it to be around 30 minutes shorter, it’s an expertly crafted and well-presented work that I believe has a great commercial future.
Ami Kirk Jones’ set creates the perfect mood for the events of the play. The dull beigeness and sparsely adorned walls, complete with a modern-day Jesus painting and several metallic crucifixes, is a pitch perfect replication of every sad community room that I’ve ever seen in a church. Beyond that, the set dressing and prop work by props master Sean Malone, is definitely my favorite element. The baby heads, precious-moment figurines, and sparse and ill-fitting decorations were amazingly kitschy and wonderful. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but the cost of entry is worth it just to gaze at one of the centerpieces (you’ll know which one) for about two hours.
Tyler Graeper’s lighting, paired with the props and set, perfectly help craft the stark and stale mood of one of these community rooms as well. Modern and well fitted, Rachel McKay and Hunter Stansell’s costume designs, helped define each of the characters. In particular, I loved the flowing blue shirt and pants that perfectly captured Mama Jubilee. My one qualm is that the pregnancy belly that McKay was in fact wearing, did look a little off and a little unrealistic for most of the performance that I saw.
As a whole, while it is hilarious, some of the play’s strongest moments were in the saddest moments of the play. Nora and Quinn, played by Chelsea Winstead and Joey DeSena, respectively, each played the the perfect “straight men” in all of the crazy characters. They truly shine as performers in the play’s most heart-wrenching moments though. Their collective emotional vulnerability and strength shine through as the play’s protagonists.
Kelly Stansell as Mama Jubilee was a marvel to watch. While I felt like there was something missing with her accent work, seeing her play such a toxic character so fully was surreal. She totally inhabited that never-satisfied, always criticizing character in every family, and that larger-than-life person that you get away from as soon as you can. Her character and McCarthy’s script offered the possibility of seeing someone like that become so vulnerable. Because it is fiction, Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams offered that impossible possibility that someone so toxic could find real honesty and try to make real change — and the fact that Stansell captured it so well was magical.
By far my favorite characters in the play were the antics of the twins: Tyler Graeper as Aiden and Lizz Webb as Avery. Put simply, they were the perfect clowns. From Graeper’s constant costume changes, to Webb climbing under tables, to Graeper lifting things out of reach — they brought levity and razor sharp comic timing to every scene that they were in. Second to the twins, some of the best comedic work was executed by Lauren Bamford as the “Pinterest Perfect” Samantha, whose monologue at the end of Act I is, perhaps ,the most satisfying and surprising part of the play.
Both Rissa Brinson as Zee and Carla Reck as Anne had their own great comedic moments and helped add context to the drama. Finally, the couple the baby shower was actually for, Sean Malone as Jack and Rachel McKay as Maggie, brought lightness and fun to both of their roles. From food-based comedy, to always wielding a Stitch-adorned iPhone — they were a great, happy-go-lucky married couple. Though, like the characters of Mama Jubilee, Nora, and Quinn, their most honest moments were their saddest moments. Their best moments came emotional vulnerability when they displayed when tension was high.
That being said, I was a little confused by the implication of how dumb the character of Jack was supposed to be and the degree that “pregnancy brain” was affecting Maggie. I think the characterization may have gone a little far, and made some of the character’s behaviors a little confusing.
Overall, Women’s Theatre Festival’s presentation of Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams is a hilarious and sometimes emotional ride. Tackling the question of motherhood, family, love, death, new life, and how to use Pinterest — it’s definitely a great pick to satisfy your chick-flick craving. Maybe take your local Mama Jubilee with you and see what she thinks. Plus, the night I went, they were playing some Baby Shower games. I didn’t win; but if you’re cut-throat enough, maybe you could pick up the grand prize.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 7th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article165816622.html; Aug. 6th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/sweet-tea-and-baby-dreams/Event?oid=7314850; and Aug. 4th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://www.cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8586. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 9th Triangle Review review by Shannon Plummer-White, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/08/in-maribeth-mccarthys-sweet-tea-and-baby-dreams-blood-is-thicker-than-sweet-tea/.)
The Women’s Theatre Festival presents SWEET TEA AND BABY DREAMS at 8 p.m. Aug 10-12 and 3 p.m. Aug 13 in the Studio Theatre in Jones Hall at Meredith College, 3800 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $10, except free for Meredith students and faculty and $5 for non-Meredith students and seniors.
BOX OFFICE: 919-760-2840 or https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScXW89ASVn5VVLD-FsOkU6uUYxcGybwerlDWvYR2IYfui_XBg/viewform.
Maribeth McCarthy (playwright and director): https://www.facebook.com/Wickedenigma (Facebook page).
Katy Koop is a writer, comedic actor, and stage manager based in Cary, NC. As a freelance writer, her work has been published by Later, Femsplain, and Hello Giggles. When she’s not writing or involved in a local production, she’s tweeting under the handle @katykooped. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.