Olympia Bukkakis as Honey Sue Washington in SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN. Pic Marg Howell
Olympia Bukkakis as Honey Sue Washington in SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN. Pic Marg Howell

Strangely alluring would be one way to describe SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN, now playing at the Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst.

Part drag show (well, very large part drag show}, part ‘Streetcar Named Desire’, part ‘Gone with the Wind’, part ‘Django Unchained’, the show works on a number of levels, partly because of its inherent hilarity, but also because it manages to blend irreverence with a refreshingly new take on a very well worn period of history.

SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN is set in Georgia just after the outbreak of the American Civil War, where family patriarch Big Daddy is awaiting the return of his beloved daughter Honey Sue, who left home in mysterious circumstances 10 years prior. Meanwhile, his younger daughter Daisy May, innocence personified, is engaged to the dashing military man Clive O’Donnell.

As the authors Ash Flanders and Declan Greene, the Sisters Grimm, state in the program notes, “unlike most homosexuals, we identify very strongly with headstrong, fallen women of the past. And for this reason, the Southern antebellum epic – in all its lush tragedy – is exactly where our hearts would beat, if we had them.”

Adapting the genre to the stage in 2013, they added, “presented a myriad of problems regarding representations of gender, race and sexuality”.

Yet pull if off they have, and in quite a spectacular way, if the audience reaction to Friday night’s performance is anything to go by, and all within a 65-minute timeframe.

Like all ripping historical yarns, especially involving southern belles and their broken hearts, the plotting, scheming and back-stabbing moves along at a frenetic pace, revealing more than just a few skeletons in the family closet.

The snappy dialogue is also aided by some wonderful performances by an impressive cast.

Olympia Bukkakis and Agent Cleave are hilarious as sisters Honey Sue and Daisy May Washington. Yes they camped their roles up to the max, but despite the inherent absurdity of much of the melodrama, they still managed to imbue in them a sense of empathy, despite the obligatory undercurrent of nastiness and bitchiness. Honey Sue in particular channels Streetcar’s Blanche Dubois to perfection.

Genevieve Giuffre as Mammy, the long-suffering negro servant who finally finds a voice after 40 years of servitude is brilliant behind a rag doll, using just the right mix of humour and pathos.

Peter Paltos is also impressive as Daisy May’s fiancé Clive O’Donnell, the dashing military man intent on drawing the rest of the family into his web of intrigue.

But the highlight for me was Bessie Holland’s portrayal of Big Daddy, the larger-than-life family patriarch, heartbroken by his perfect daughter’s indiscretions. Holland’s character is like a strange hybrid of Jackie Gleason and Colonel Sanders, combining bellicose self-righteousness and indignation with just the right amount of hypocrisy.

Yes, it’s a drag show, and a hilarious one at that, but SUMMERTIME proved to be much more. There are genuinely moving moments and writer/director Declan Greene has done a superb job in capturing the absurdity of the mores of the times, as viewed in a modern context, through the grossly overstated reactions of his characters, most of whom have almost no moral fibre at all, as it transpires.

The costumes and set decoration also deserve praise, contributing much to the play’s vibrancy within a relatively confined space.

SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN is an invigorating, entertaining romp, and whilst it could have possibly done with a few less plot twists, it still deserves a big thumbs up.The production opened at the SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross on Friday November 22 and runs until Saturday December 14, 2013.