The more things change, the more they stay the same, or so the saying goes.
Arriving at the new Marietta Theatre, you might not notice much difference from when the same space was called the Theatre in the Square. The box office looks the same; the lobby is the same; the seats, stage and concession counter are all the same. Heck, even the nice lady who tears your ticket stub and welcomes you to the show seems the same. But the charming new one-woman show “The Summer of Daisy Fay,” running at Marietta Theatre through November 25, shows a marked shift in theatrical philosophy and approach.
Quirky, cute, audience-pleasing and funny, it’s a show that’s hard not to like. The spirited Daisy Fay (Veronika Duerr) is having quite a summer. She’s spent most of her childhood in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the 1950s as an outsider and an ugly duckling with a chipped tooth and boxy glasses, being raised by her father after the death of her mother. But as she begins to blossom into a talented (or at least funny and ambitious) young actress, her drama teacher encourages her to enter the Miss Mississippi contest to win a scholarship to acting school in Manhattan.
Her tooth can be fixed and, though the contact lenses hurt, she decides she’ll take her chances. In Act I, set at the beginning of the summer, we meet the old, awkward Daisy Fay. We’re her imaginary audience as she rehearses in her bedroom, confesses and talks about her life. In Act II, which takes place at the end of the summer, we meet the transformed Daisy Fay — she’s still the same witty outsider in spite of the physical change — and hear about her unexpected challenges and hilarious triumphs at the beauty contest in Tupelo.
Duerr is certainly an actress to watch. We’ve recently enjoyed her smart, funny, beleagured Viola in “Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare Tavern, and she also directed a bitingly comic production of the contemporary satire “Anton in Show Business” this summer for her own new theater company, The Weird Sisters. (It’s not Duerr’s first time on this Marietta stage: several years ago, she received a Suzi Bass Award for her performance in Theatre in the Square’s “Tradin’ Paint.”) She continues to impress here, and it’s a great match of actress to role. Duerr is a talented storyteller and an insightful comedienne and, surprise, so is Daisy Fay.
Duerr gives a lot of life to Daisy’s colorful observations. A frazzled pageant manager walks into a room with “hair that looks like she arrived by eagle,” and a princessy, baton-twirling rival is “as cool as crushed ice.” Duerr delivers such observations with wry wit, and she handles the various ups and downs (it’s a pretty emotional summer for Daisy Fay) with a lot of honesty. A simple set of Daisy’s bedroom and period music help evoke the time.
The play is based on a novel by Fannie Flagg of “Fried Green Tomatoes” fame, and it was adapted and directed by “Greater Tuna” co-author Ed Howard, who is Marietta Theatre’s artistic director. Audiences familiar with those productions will have something of the idea behind “Daisy Fay”: a funny, inoffensive, safe, cute, crowd-pleasing, nostalgic Southern comedy. You could bring your grandmother without ever having to worry.
Which is to say that “Daisy Fay” and the upcoming “Tuna Christmas” suggest a new direction. Theatre in the Square called it quits after 30 years of operating in Marietta, announcing in March that it no longer had the operating funds to continue. Throughout its run, Theater in the Square provided a steady roster of thought-provoking contemporary work and important classics such as “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “Gross Indecency,” “The Persians,” “Rabbit Hole” and many others, occasionally going head to head with retrograde local public officials such as Gordon Wysong and Bill Byrne.
“Daisy Fay” is not “Peer Gynt” — not every play has to be. And in the end, perhaps it’s best that arts organizations take a “center-out” approach to provocative, challenging work — build a strong, diverse, solid and unshakably established core in Atlanta’s center (which we still lack) before sending tendrils into outlying areas. The longtime cultural and financial woes of Theatre in the Square make me wonder if there’s not a grain of truth in something a friend said: if MARTA can’t go there yet, then neither can Terrence McNally, Aeschylus or Oscar Wilde.