Home from the Big Apple, Heflin director tackles ‘Southern-fried’ theater in ‘The Red Velvet Cake War’
by Erin Williams
Special to The Star
Mar 10, 2013 | 5564 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Shane Smith, bottom left, directs actors during a rehearsal for ‘The Red Velvet Cake War’ at Heflin’s new civic center. Photo:
Shane Smith, bottom left, directs actors during a rehearsal for ‘The Red Velvet Cake War’ at Heflin’s new civic center. Photo:
It’s a classic story that we see played out on weeknight sitcoms and romantic comedies again and again — a small-town kid moves to the big city on a dollar and a dream, finds fame and fortune, then tires of city life and returns back to his roots to make a difference.

But this isn’t a Hollywood production; it’s the real life of Shane Smith, a kid born and raised in Heflin who, after graduating from Jacksonville State University in 1995, moved to New York City to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. He had hoped to land on his feet in theater, but instead found a lucrative job working in marketing and sales for Virgin Records.

The high profile position put him in the paths of such stars as Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney and KISS. After the company closed in 2009, Smith decided to change course and came home to start the next chapter of his storied life.

“It was definitely a journey,” he said of his 15 years in the Big Apple. “I love New York, but it’s also great to be back home. I got to see the best of both worlds throughout my life.”

Upon his return, the 39-year-old found work as the city clerk for Heflin and “immediately got involved” with the Heflin Arts Council as the music coordinator. The fresh group and the possibilities that lay ahead birthed some strong possibilities for his creative side, he remembers, and soon he started helming the performing arts arm of the group.

Smith had acted in New York touring companies in the past but says he never had the opportunity to explore his passion for directing until he came back home.

“I guess you could say I’m here to stay now,” he said. “I did my run in New York. Now it’s time to come back home and give back to my community, which I feel like I’m doing now.”

Smith has embraced the arts council in a big way and really flexed his muscles as a director. He now has four productions under his belt, including a murder-mystery dinner theater. His latest production, “The Red Velvet Cake War” — by the playwriting team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten — is “Southern-fried comedy,” he said. “We all from the South know people that are like this in the play.”

The show focuses on three cousins from Texas who decide to host their family reunion. Culinary camaraderie turns things upside down when one of the cousins gets into a baking war with her aunt, who is played by CAST veteran Lolly Payne. Put in a hungry dog, a nosy neighbor, a natural disaster and a few love connections, and you’ve got a “‘Steel Magnolias’ meets ‘Dearly Departed’-type play,” said Smith. “The first time I read it, I couldn’t stop laughing. It left me smiling and with a good feeling, and I wanted the audience to feel that as well.”

Smith has been quite impressed with the talent he sees in his actors. The cast includes local stars Beverly Casey, Mayor Rudy Rooks and beautician Peggy Cochran.

“When I was a kid I used to go and perform in Peggy’s beauty shop all the time,” Smith remembers of his first stage when his mother would get her hair done. “I grew up knowing a lot of these people my whole life and knew they were characters, but I never imagined them being on stage. Now that I get to see them on stage, they’ve impressed me, and I’m very impressed with them.”

Smith is proud to be a part of the small-but-growing arts scene in his hometown. The city’s community arts center is home to dance and music lessons, classical concerts and the “Music In May” outdoor band performances in Ross Park. Last year the council hosted its first Christmas concert, and up next is a visual art show in the spring.

“We try to offer a little bit to everyone here in our community so that they don’t have to leave our community to go and take part in it,” said Smith, who remembers journeying to Anniston to work with the community theater as a child.

“We really want to open and allow people to do other things that cities have that we can offer to the best of our ability here in Heflin. Yes, we’re never going to have what Atlanta or the big cities are going to have, but we can try and accommodate and make things happen here for everyone.”

Smith admits that he does get nostalgic for New York on occasion, but all it takes is a quick reminder of what he is surrounded with to reinforce why he is here.

“There are days when I’m here in town and I get to be with my family and I get to do the theater and enjoy it and not have to worry about making a living with it as well. That’s a great thing — to be able just to enjoy doing theater instead of having to worry about putting food on my table. I’m very fortunate to have been welcomed back. It’s just great. I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made.”

Family feuds and high-stakes baking: Recipe for Southern comedy

Since the moment Shirley MacClaine chopped off the backside of an armadillo-shaped groom’s cake in the Southern Belle anthem, “Steel Magnolias,” red velvet cake has been a culinary staple of the Deep South. The Technicolor delicacy and its signature cream cheese frosting can be found at every celebration, church supper and family reunion below the Mason-Dixon line.

So when the Verdeen cousins of Sweetgum, Texas, invite their delightfully eccentric family to town for a summer reunion, what else could be expected but “The Red Velvet Cake War”?

In the Southern comedy being presented this week by the Heflin Arts Council, mean old Aunt LaMerle — embarrassed after her niece Gaynelle parks her car in the middle of her ex-husband’s new girlfriend’s doublewide — cancels the upcoming family reunion. That just leaves Gaynelle, along with cousins Peaches and Jimmie, to host the get-together themselves.

Of course, the cousins’ best-laid plans go awry thanks to oddball relatives, romantic rivalries, long-lost spouses, missing eyeballs and a volatile Texas tornado season. But the cake really hits the fan when Gaynelle challenges LaMerle to a red velvet cake-off. The high-stakes wager (Gaynelle bets the house, literally) ignites the epic family feud from which “The Red Velvet Cake War” takes its name.

Bringing crabby Aunt LaMerle to life is local theater vet Lolly Payne, with Ricketta Wilson playing the role of fiery Gaynelle. Also cast are Beverly Casey as Jimmie and Caron Duckworth as Peaches.

Performances will run Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Casey Auditorium. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students and are available at WM Grocery and Heflin City Hall.

And if all the red velvety competition has your Southern taste buds watering, don’t fret. Marie’s BBQ in Heflin will be on hand at each performance to serve ticket holders a slice of its own red velvet cake.

And this one won’t be shaped liked an armadillo.

— Brooke Carbo, bcarbo@annistonstar.com

Heflin Arts Council presents “The Red Velvet Cake War”

Thursday, March 14,- Saturday, March 16, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 17, at 2 p.m.

Where: Casey Auditorium, Heflin

Tickets: $15 for adults, $8 for students

Info: Heflin City Hall, 256-463-2290
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