Wichita Community Theatre is mixing hilarity with poignancy in its latest production. “The Dixie Swim Club” focuses on the enduring bond of friendship and the ups and downs of life experienced by five close-knit Southern women who met on their college swim team. The show, which opened last weekend, features a cast of women as diverse as the characters they play. It’s a performance that the director thinks is relevant to any audience.
“Even though they are very different women, they find camaraderie because they all go through similar things … marriage, divorce, children, finding the right career, making it all work. It’s very human,” said director Mary Lou Phipps-Winfrey. “It’s what women go through, and men, too. Men can relate because if they have any kind of relationship with a woman they hear about their experience, some of their unhappinesses and their joys.”
The play was written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, collectively known as Jones Hope Wooten. They’ve penned a number of popular comedies focusing on life in the South and are among the most produced playwrights in the United States.
Phipps-Winfrey thinks there’s something universal about their works that keeps audiences engaged. She said theatergoers have commented to her that they are drawn in by the affable and honest spirit of the characters. She also thinks there is an endearing weightiness in between the laughter.
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“The writers of this really portray characters that people can relate to, or perhaps they know someone like that,” she said. “The Southern comedies really seem to attract audiences. We think of Southern people as sort of warm and gregarious and oftentimes funny. This is a very charming show, but it has some depth to it. It’s not just a light comedy. It really goes through the hard things in life.”
The play itself begins over 20 years after the women met in college while on their school’s swimming team. Since graduating, they’ve reunited every August for a weekend to reconnect and gossip over cocktails at a beachfront cottage in North Carolina. The story begins as the women are entering their middle-age years and grappling with personal challenges at home and in their careers. Thirty years pass during the four acts, with each scene taking a look at the women’s four most memorable weekend getaways. The first three scenes are five years apart, with the last one taking place 22 years later, when the women are in their late 70s.
Phipps-Winfrey said that the actors who play the women are as different as the characters they are emulating on stage, but that they’ve formed their own unique and special connection among themselves.
“I was fortunate that the women who auditioned were easily put into the roles. They are very diverse women as well. We have a marketing director, a lawyer, a fitness expert, a hair stylist … it’s an amazing group."
Crystal Meek plays the health-conscious Sheree Hollinger. Teri Mott takes on the role of career-dynamo Dinah Grayson. Gaye Tibbets plays pampered housewife Lexie Richards, while Cheryl Pearce portrays people-pleaser Jeri Neal McFeeley, and Dona Lancaster rounds out the cast as down-on-her-luck Vernadette Simms.
“Audiences will feel perhaps closer to their own friends,” Phipps-Winfrey said. “When they see these women supporting one another, they’ll realize that friendship and helping someone through life … that’s what’s valuable.”