Theater review: ‘Geller Girls’ a domestic comedy of old Atlanta, circa 1895

Thirty years after the Civil War, a newly reconstructed Atlanta had a coming out party at Piedmont Park. President Grover Cleveland welcomed the world, John Philip Sousa composed a march, and Booker T. Washington made a controversial speech on race relations.

This was the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895, an idyllic moment that intimated the vast social change that was about to unspool. This all-but-forgotten Victorian-era event forms the backdrop for Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer’s Alliance Theatre world premiere “The Geller Girls.” An exhilarating romantic comedy that describes the complicated internal politics of a family whose cocoon of domestic bliss is on the verge of unraveling, “Geller Girls” is Shaffer’s most satisfying and affecting play to date.

As the Gellers’ crowded dollhouse of a home comes into view, we meet Louisa Geller (Ann Marie Gideon) and her sister, Rosalee (Courtney Patterson). Louisa, a 17-year-old figure of Southern vivaciousness and feminine charm, is over the moon about the opening of the Exposition. The haggardly, Cinderella-like Rosalee, 23, has been up all night stitching a shiny gown for her mother, Sarahann (Courtenay Collins), a woman of elegant carriage and cloying grandiosity.

Enter their doting father, Albert (Mark Cabus), a fabric shop owner, who has been to the train station to fetch Charles Heyman (Joe Sykes), an eligible young bachelor cousin down from New York.

Writing with a precise sense of place, time and character, Shaffer sketches a scene reminiscent of Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” which described an Atlanta Jewish family worked up about the 1939 opening of “Gone With the Wind.” Though Louisa has been promised to a childhood suitor who is off at college and Rosalee wants nothing more than to open her own dress shop, Charles will upset the order of things and cause the Geller girls to question their choices in love, marriage, education and business.

For all the “Ah, Wilderness!” tenderness and the roseate glow that surrounds this cozy tableau, the residue of a complicated past lurks in the margins. Shaffer reveals these emotional minefields with a masterly stroke.

Playing out like a Shakespeare comedy and a classic 19th-century novel of marriage, “The Geller Girls” totters on the edge of joy and devastation. Louisa and Rosalee are feminist archetypes, and in a play that echoes both Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” and the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice (in one especially suspenseful moment), their journeys are rich and poignant.

Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth delivers a nearly pitch-perfect production, coaxing the best work I have seen from Cabus, Collins and Gideon. The detail that Collins brings to the role of the regal, manipulative matriarch is astonishing — and hilarious. Cabus captures the father’s cake- and whiskey-loving shenanigans, even as his mask is removed to reveal a man who is stressed and overextended. Though Gideon has been a solid Georgia Shakespeare ensemble member for several years now, here she is extraordinary, evincing a character who radiates innocence and hope yet who is torn by anxiety and indecision. Patterson’s Rosalee simmers on low for most of the play, but when her kettle begins to boil, watch out.

Alas, the weak link is Sykes, who is coy when he should be charismatic. To be sure, Charles is the least interesting and least developed character in the play, but surely there’s more to him than Sykes allows us to see.

On the design side, Clay Benning creates a musical landscape that has its own little narrative arc. Linda Roethke styles stunning period costumes. And Collette Pollard’s sets — the house, the fabric shop, the twinkly lights of the Exposition — are magnificent.

Since reviewing Shaffer’s first Alliance play, “He Looks Great in a Hat” (1999), I have been slow to warm to her work. I’m thrilled to say that I love pretty much everything about “The Geller Girls.” It’s a wonderfully textured comedy about a world on the cusp of change, and a family that must find a new way to live and to love.

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