Small town life takes center stage in ‘Exact Center of the Universe’ _lowres

Photo by DONALD LUKE COUVILLION -- Starring in the Louisiana Voices of Women Theatre Company's production of 'The Exact Center of the Universe' are, from left, Jerel Giarrusso as Marybell Baxter, Courtney McKay Murphy as twins Mary Lou and Mary Ann Mele, Ryan Chase Lee as Appleton Powell Jr. and Mr. Powel, Jan Koellen as Vada Love Powell and Anne Abbott Moloney Woods as Enid Symonds.

Appleton Powell is the center of Vada Love Powell’s universe.

No, he’s more than that. He’s the exact center, the entire meaning of her existence.

Vada raised Apple on her own, and she’s not about to let just any girl marry her son. So, Apple has to sneak off to marry the love of his life, Mary Ann Mele, and that’s where trouble begins in the Louisiana Voices of Women Theatre Company’s production of Joan Vail Thorne’s play, “The Exact Center of the Universe.”

The show runs for two performances on Saturday and Sunday in the Studio at the Creative Bloc.

“The play takes place over two decades, starting in the 1950s in the first act, then in the 1960s in the second,” says director Aileen Hendricks, also the company’s founding artistic director. “Though it says the setting is the Deep South, the story is really set in Hammond.”

That’s because the playwright is a Hammond native, who knows about self-appointed doyennes in small southern towns. Vada, played by Jan Koellen, is one such doyenne, and she’s invited Mary Lou Mele, played by Courtney McKay Murphy, to tea. Mary Lou is the twin sister to Mary Ann, also played by Murphy, who is secretly marrying Apple, played by Ryan Chase Lee, while Mary Lou meets with Vada.

When Apple reveals the marriage, Vada must relay the news to her friends, who agree that Vada “had this coming.”

“She’s always controlled Apple’s life, and now he’s married to a young Catholic woman whose mother is Irish and father is Italian,” Hendricks says. “This is not the ideal woman Vada would have chosen for her son.”

But even Vada is astounded by Mary Ann’s love for Apple.

Meanwhile, Vada and her friends are known as the Tree House Gang, because they meet weekly in a tree house to play cards and eat sweets. That’s what they tell people, anyway. What they’re really doing is gossiping about everyone in town, but now Vada is at the center of the gossip.

Ten years pass, and Apple and Mary Ann are parents to twin girls, who run away. Vada gets the blame. Will this completely severe her bond with Apple? “There’s a lot that happens in between,” Hendricks says. “These are characters we recognize in a small town, and the story is great.”

The Louisiana Voices of Women performs plays specifically written by women playwrights.

Thorne is a librettist, playwright and stage director, having written two operas with Stephen Paulus and five plays.

“The Exact Center of the Universe,” had an off Broadway run with Frances Sternhagen in the starring role. Thorne also has written and directed two short films: “Last Rites,” shown on PBS, and “Secrets,” shown on Cinemax.