A! Magazine for the Arts

 “Exit Laughing” runs at Barter Theatre's Gilliam Stage, Abingdon, Virginia, through Aug. 24.

“Exit Laughing” runs at Barter Theatre's Gilliam Stage, Abingdon, Virginia, through Aug. 24.

REVIEW: Enter for a Wild Ride . . . Exit Laughing

June 11, 2019

Wouldn’t life be so much more fun if only you could dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening, and speak your mind like no one cares a fig what you say? Or, rather, you don’t care a fig what anyone thinks? A visit to Barter Theatre’s “Exit Laughing” is an opportunity to sample just such a life.

In Paul Elliott’s uproarious farce that pushes the comedic envelope to bursting, three captivating Southern ladies are inspired by a voice from beyond to trade their lives of drudgery and tedium for a wild joy ride into the sunset. Their irresistible enthusiasm sweeps us along with them, and we are keen passengers.

Four Birmingham, Alabama belles, Connie, Leona, Mary, and Millie - have been a tight-knit group of friends for over 30 years. As the autumn of life dawns, Mary’s demise leaves her three comrades feeling as though they have lost their anchor. But Mary demonstrates that bonds of long-term friendship last beyond the realm of earthly existence. Knowing they are mired in grieving, not only for her, but for their lives that took an unsatisfying path, she sends a message from beyond that in essence shouts: “Take a detour! Don’t waste time, live life to the max!” The hilarious turns of events that follow produce the most thrilling night of their lives.

The evening before the funeral, Millie “rescues” Mary’s ashes from the funeral home and brings them to bridge night at Connie’s house. In a hideous bejeweled urn that might have been an accessory at an Elton John concert, “Mary” proceeds to host a topsy-turvy evening that involves a police raid, a male stripper and a host of shocking revelations. More than clothing gets stripped away as pretense gradually crumbles and long-held spicy secrets spill forth. As their often raucous and unvarnished dialogue blossoms, truths surface that shock each of them to their core and we discover what really makes these ladies tick.

Ironically, losing a link from their foursome of friends becomes the catharsis that ultimately bonds them tighter. Mary’s challenge jolts them from their complacency but also supplies them the courage to go for the gusto. She tests them in the way life tests us all: meet a challenge and often enjoy a reward. We are as enchanted by her as are her dear friends, so perhaps Mary’s sage advice from the hereafter is worth heeding.

Director Barrett Guyton leads the talented cast as they tell the hysterical story of this charming blend of beguiling characters. And what better place to tell it than in a comfortable home befitting a classy Southern lady, provided by Set Designer Derek Smith. Filled with pastels, flowers, and light from large windows, it is tastefully appointed with both modern and traditional furnishings. Embellished by three large mismatched paintings on the walls that seem to reflect the ladies’ individual personalities, it is a perfect setting for the exciting night to come.

Like the lyrics of country songs that Sound Designer Tony Angelini has cleverly selected to accompany this Southern gothic comedy, these ladies share the bald truth about life’s struggles and woes in their inimitable forthright style. Tricia Matthews immediately wins our hearts and our respect in her pleasing portrayal of Connie, the sensible voice of reason in the group. She is a loyal friend and a loving mother who, though lying dormant for many years as a divorcée, has not lost her capacity for passion. Paris Bradstreet is forever entertaining as Leona, bursting onto the scene ready to party from the get-go and filling the stage with a feisty personality and heart as big as all outdoors. Her fondness for adult beverages and gossip means she is never at a loss to supply colorful stories from her hair salon as well as droll and tantalizing quips.

Mary Lucy Bivins completely captures Millie’s childlike expectations and simplistic approach to life, which she delivers with wholesale honesty. She prompts roars of laughter with her understated responses that demonstrate Milllie’s taking every statement literally, or hearing it in her own special way, always with a completely straight face. She is especially hilarious watching the “moon” come out at night.

Zoe Velling plays Connie’s daughter, Rachel, a girl full of outrage as only the very young jilted in love can generate. But the wrath is tempered by the care and warm rapport between mother (Matthews) and daughter. Garrett T. Houston balances the feminine throng as Bobby, showing fine range as the male stripper who masks a mild-mannered student with admirable ambitions.

Mary’s message is clear: life’s a journey, not just a means to a destination. Grab all the joy you can while you’re here and fill it with laughter as much as possible. It may be true that “He who laughs last, laughs best.” But he or she who exits laughing, lives best.

“Exit Laughing” runs at Barter Theatre's Gilliam Stage, Abingdon, Virginia, through Aug. 24.

For tickets and information contact 276-628-3991 or www.bartertheatre.com.

Bonny Gable is a former theater professor and freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia.