By Manning Harris
A vibrant young girl of 17 stands on an upper level of her Atlanta house in 1895 and announces to the world—and the audience—that she is ready for the Opening Day of the Cotton States and International Exposition, which is welcoming the world to Atlanta, 30 years after the Civil War.
And the Alliance Theatre is likewise ready to present the world premiere of homegrown playwright Janece Shaffer’s charming new romantic comedy “The Geller Girls,” running through Feb. 9.
The Exposition really happened; for 100 days, in what is now Piedmont Park, Atlanta proclaimed to 800,000 people that it was prepared to be a player on the international scene.
“The Geller Girls” is a love letter to Atlanta, but also to the questing, restless energy of youth and its power to create and reinvent itself. The girl mentioned above are Louisa Geller (Ann Marie Gideon), and her older sister is Rosalee (Courtney Patterson). Louisa has been unofficially “engaged” since she was a child, and a boy announced to her that they would one day marry. Almost everyone assumes that the young man will make it official, now that Louisa is about to turn 18.
Her formidable, doting mother Sarahann (Courtenay Collins), a steel magnolia if there ever was one, has certainly been counting on it; so has her father Albert (Mark Cabus). But the winds of change, so perfectly symbolized by the Exposition, are blowing. Also there is a quite dashing young man named Charles (Joe Sykes), visiting from New York City, whose tales of the power and magic of the big city fascinate both Louisa and Rosalee, who expertly runs her father’s textile store. Charles’ presence, along with the remarkable Exposition in the Gellers’ backyard, doubles the girls’ curiosity and excitement, especially for Louisa, who realizes she has talent and potential she never knew.
College! New York! Public speaking! Whoever thought a young woman could be interested or talented in such things? Certainly not Louisa—not until now. And how about riding a bicycle (a very funny scene)! But Booker T. Washington, on the first day of the Exposition, challenged his audience to “cast down your bucket where you are.” The historic speech is called the “Atlanta Compromise.”
Playwright Shaffer has a remarkable gift of weaving seemingly disparate elements of the plot into a beautiful, seamless whole. And her play, directed by Susan V. Booth, takes on a compelling life that easily draws you in. This cast is exemplary. Ms. Collins’ Sarahann is a mixture of Amanda Wingfield, Violet Venable, and even a touch of Violet Weston (of “August Osage County”)! Resist her iron will and magnetic charm at your peril.
Ms. Gideon and Ms. Patterson are both attractive and brilliant. Mr. Cabus and Mr. Sykes are excellent. The set (Collette Pollard) and costumes (Linda Roethke) are gorgeous. “The Geller Girls” is a lovely, startling evening’s entertainment and enlightenment. Go and enjoy.