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Review: Mill Town Players Baptist Women Touch the Heart

Greg Wilson/Anderson Observer

“You’re not supposed to understand, you’re Baptist.”

This line from the second act of “First Baptist of Ivy Gap,” could not be a better tagline in this latest offering from The Mill Town Players. 

Photo Escobar PhotographyBut you don't have to be Baptist to enjoy this two-act play which kicks off in 1945, with the 75th anniversary celebration of the church and concludes in 1970 as they plan to mark 100 years of First Baptist Ivy Gap. 

As the play begins in 1945, six women are gathering at the church to roll bandages for the war effort. Five of the women are, in one way or another pillars of the church, and the sixth eager to become a Baptist and a member of their fellowship.

But while preparing for their act of mercy, preparations are also under way for First Baptist Ivy Gap’s 50th anniversary celebration. Not party, a celebration, as Edith is quick to remind the women Baptists don’t have parties.

Libby Riggins shines as the ageless Edith, the pastor’s wife, and serves as a kind of master of ceremonies, keeping not only the story, but the stories of the other women moving. Riggins’ movements, voice and temperament bring a sassy attitude to the long-suffering wife of a pastor who gets little respect. Edith does what many pastors’ wives have done for more than a century, she runs the church while her husband preaches on Sunday. The women who are paying attention are the only ones who recognize her effort. 

If you grew up in practically any denomination in the Deep South during the last half of the last century, these women will either be familiar to you, or you are likely a man who was never allowed (or never bothered) to look behind the scenes. 

Meanwhile Mae Ellen, the church organist who can’t wait to leave Ivy Gap, is less diplomatic than the others about what’s wrong the the church, the town and those who live in it.

DeAnna Gregory brings an authenticity to a role which could easily have drifted into caricature. Mae Ellen loves going “off the bulletin” to play her own versions of the hymns, even changing the words to update the text. She is first to say what almost everyone else is thinking, without a hint of real malice, all the while constantly begging to be fired. Mae Ellen also manages to link the younger women, including Edith, in overlooking tradition and rules.  

Her interactions with Olene, in a lively and energetic performance by Alyssa McMillan as the wanna-be Hollywood starlet ready to leave town today, offer some of the play’s silliest (and funniest) moments as at least some of the older church ladies aren’t sure what to make of them and their song and dance routine. Olene follows her dream to Hollywood, only to find it more a nightmare, before landing a long-running job in the land that Baptists forgot - Las Vegas. Olene’s demonstration of her “Madame Midnight” dance gets more eye rolls than blushes, though, from her long-time friends at Ivy Gap. She breaks all the rules but still is welcomed home as if she never left. 

Those rules were primarily the domain of Vera, the church aristocrat played with pearls and cat-eye glasses snooty perfection by Nancy Burkard. Vera might be the most recognizable church goer, the one who is affluent, tithes and always carries a pocket full of first stones. She expects deference, and wants no part of fun or real fellowship with the other women. Her gear shift to redemption in the second act finally brings her some measure of connection, even if it is a little prickly. 

Luby, Fran Eckert’s widow worried with grief, sets the tone for the first act as a smothering mother waiting for her only son to return from the war. She is the very real reminder that the bandages are for real people, and hopes, but doubts her prayers are enough to bring her son home safe. Eckert brings a quiet, mourning counter tone of solemnity to a story that otherwise could have turned into regional farce. Her redemption and transformation are believable, thanks to a fine performance. 

Her son’s safety is also foremost, but secretly, on the mind of Sammy, the young non-Baptist outsider played by Ryvers Martin. Sammy is more rural than the townsfolk of Ivy Gap, and wants to fit in so badly she jumps at any chance to join in, including Baptism. Martin gives heart to the wounded Sammy, and nails the most radical transformation of any of the characters after 25 years have passed.   

The growth, or lack thereof, of these women provides an excellent second act, and the good opening-night crowd was engaged throughout.  

As always, the set for this play was spot on, thanks to Will Ragland. The Mill Town Players are widely known as having the best staging of any company in the Upstate, and “First Baptist of Ivy Gap” is no exception. 

"First Baptist of Ivy Gap” has seven more shows, Sunday at 3 p.m., and Friday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and June 2 at 3 p.m., and June 6-9.

For more information visit Mill Town Players

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