The New York Times
May 28, 1984

Theater: 'Firecracker,' A Beth Henley Comedy 
By Frank Rich

When Beth Henley is really flying, her comic voice has the crazed yet liberating sound of a Rebel yell.  In ''The Miss Firecracker Contest,'' her comedy at the Manhattan Theater Club, this Mississippi-bred playwright reaches that high pitch for the first time since her celebrated debut, ''Crimes of the Heart.''  Who but Miss Henley can describe one tragedy after another and send us home smiling?  This time, we hear about midgets, orphans and deformed kittens - and they're the fortunate ones.  Other characters, whether on stage or off, are afflicted by cancer, tuberculosis, venereal disease and, most of all, heartbreak.  Even so, the evening's torrential downpour of humor - alternately Southern-Gothic absurdist, melancholy and broad - almost never subsides.

Miss Henley wrote this play after ''Crimes'' - but before ''The Wake of Jamey Foster,'' her Broadway misfire of two years ago.  While ''Miss Firecracker'' at times seems a slighter, messier version of the author's first success - which also focused primarily on three troubled young women - it doesn't have the warmed-over feeling of ''Jamey Foster.''  ''Miss Firecracker'' also benefits from an unusually sympathetic production, directed by Stephen Tobolowsky.  If you're going to do one of Miss Henley's plays, you'd better have actors who are ready to bounce off the walls.  Mr. Tobolowsky has them.

A wonderful actress named Holly Hunter opens the evening by bouncing quite literally about.  Miss Hunter plays Carnelle Scott of Brookhaven, Miss. Carnelle wants nothing more than to be crowned Miss Firecracker in the beauty pageant at the town's annual Independence Day celebration.  To this end, she has whipped up a talent-show act in which she tap dances and somersaults to ''The Star- Spangled Banner'' while clenching a sparkler in her teeth.  Watching Miss Hunter rehearse this performance in her living room, we wonder what could possibly be dizzier.

We find out soon enough.  Carnelle's costume seamstress is a bespectacled, awkward young woman named Popeye (Belita Moreno), who began her couturier's career at age 4 by making outfits for bullfrogs.  (Her family couldn't afford dolls.)  The orphaned Carnelle also has a pair of first cousins, Elain and Delmount, with whom she was raised as a sibling.  Elain (Patricia Richardson), a prissy former Miss Firecracker, has just fled her boring wealthy husband in Natchez.  Delmount (Mark Linn- Baker), lately a lunatic asylum inmate, has just quit his menial state job of ''scraping up dead dogs from the road.''  Delmount now aspires to earn a philosophy degree in New Orleans so that he can ''let everyone know why we're living.''  But first he must sell off the oppressive Victorian house that represents both the family's legacy and curse.

''The Miss Firecracker Contest'' is about how all four principal characters try to escape their unhappy pasts and find out ''what you can reasonably hope for in life.''  Yet Miss Henley has neatly folded her own philosophical pursuits into a wild account of her heroine's pursuit of her prize.  By Act II, the action has moved from the family manse to the fairgrounds - where the ongoing contest is punctuated by a bloody fistfight and unexpected romantic crises for each character.  ''Wonders never do quite cease,'' says the carnival's balloon man (Budge Threlkeld), and, after a while, those wonders have more to do with the attainment of spiritual grace than beauty-pageant honors.

For all the play's hyperbolic comic shenanigans, Miss Henley never loses sight of the sad, real people within.  Carnelle isn't just trying to be Miss Firecracker; she's trying to overcome the low self-esteem engendered by her miserable childhood, as well as the unsavory reputation that has led the town's men to dub her ''Miss Hot Tamale.''  Elain and Delmount are trying to flee the psychological grip of their late mother, a ''mean'' woman who, through bizarre medical circumstances, came to resemble an ape shortly before her death.  While Popeye's past remains vague, she knows she must now escape to the Elysian Fields - once she can locate this paradise on a map.

Though Miss Henley arranges her characters' Act I catastrophes and Act II comebacks a bit mechanically, almost every line is infused with revealing, vividly observed details.  When Elain talks about running away from Natchez, she mourns the ''beautiful clocks'' she left behind, not her two sons.  Delmount, a self-confessed ''romantic,'' pursues women with ''at least one classically beautiful characteristic'' - only to be tortured by nightmares about mutilated ''pieces of women's bodies.''

Mr. Tobolowsky's staging, John Lee Beatty's Charles Addams-esque sets and Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes are all faithful to Miss Henley's stylistic amalgam of realism and 100-proof Southern consciousness.  (But the Manhattan Theater Club, however inadvertently, proves too faithful to the ''blazing heat'' of the play's setting; the auditorium is a sweatbox.)  Miss Moreno's unworldly Popeye and Mr. Linn-Baker's obsessive yet aristocratic Delmount are both memorably idiosyncratic characterizations; Miss Richardson's Elain is a fine figure of an indolent, unreconstructed belle.

As Carnelle, Miss Hunter has dyed crimson hair to match her patriotic tap-dancing costume, but somehow we always see the roots.  This actress is at once an antic, sexy Miss Firecracker and a plain, vulnerable girl desperately trying to belong.  ''They say we're all going to be dying someday, and I believe it,'' she says in one of her more reflective moments - and, if anything, death is the specter haunting almost every joke and character in the play.  What makes Beth Henley heroines like Carnelle both nutty and touching is that they struggle against that inevitability right up to the moment they go.

The Cast
THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST, by Beth Henley; directed by Stephen Tobolowsky; set design, John Lee Beatty; costume design, Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting design, Dennis Parichy; sound designer, Stan Metelits; stage manager, Wendy Chapin. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, managing director.  At 321 East 73d Street.  Carnelle Scott - Holly Hunter; Popeye Jackson - Belita Moreno; Elain Rutledge - Patricia Richardson; Delmount Williams - Mark Linn-Baker; Mac Sam - Budge Threlkeld; Tessy Mahoney - Margo Martindale