Take six displaced Southerners living in Chicago, inject them with a good dose of Yankee wit and cynicism, and turn them loose to poke fun at their roots. The end result is The Fowler Family Radio Hour, a partially improvised variety show based in the fictional Southern town of Henley (pop. 7,802, state unspecified).
Broadcast from the Titwhistle Theater (affectionately called "the Tit") on WKLK-AM 940, "mildly racist" Fowler Family patriarch Calvin Coolidge Fowler hosts a chaotic radio program that includes cooking tips from granddaughter Lori Beth Fowler Hickok, a hairstylist at the Sass 'n' Klass on Boulevard Street, and updates on Henley High Rebels football from his sister Essie May Leonard. Calvin himself became the impetus behind FDR's New Deal when he met the late president and related his "gut-wrenching tale of hardship" about his sick mules.
The show begins with a few words from Calvin, who is then joined by the rest of the family for a musical number that assures the audience they'll be "always sweet and never sour — Fowler Family Radio Hour." In addition to public service announcements and cheesy commercials offered by the entire cast, each member also showcases his or her own talent each week. Lori Beth's husband, the ambiguously gay Taylor Hickok, (Tay! when he posts to their MySpace page), sings and pays tribute to honky tonk icons. He discovered his talents during a high school trip to Dollywood, and polished them with "stage legends Bonnie Franklin and Tony Danza's series of Learn to Dance! instructional videos."
Near the show's conclusion, the family comes back together for their weekly game show "You Downright Guessed It," hosted by Essie May's husband, butcher/historian Thaddeus Leonard (they met at the Piggly Wiggly.) Although the actors have set characters and a loose idea of a script, audience participation and improvised interaction prevail throughout the performance.
"We don't know what Southern word is going to be pulled from a hat during the game show," says Macon, Ga., native Robert Cass, who plays Rick Thomason, "the Henley Cannonball," named after his stint as a semi-professional daredevil. "They're old-fashioned words that aren't used anymore, but I shouldn't give them away on the phone."
All six members of the Fowler Family are veterans of Chicago's acclaimed Second City, having polished their acts in improv troupes and solo shows before coming together as a family united by their common upbringing down South. Tim Young, who plays Thaddeus Leonard, is a native of Sumter, while the rest hail from North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Mississippi.
The show is part parody, part celebration, and is well-received in Chicago, having run for a total of three months in different theatres last year. "In Chicago, we're not sure sometimes why the audience is laughing," says Cass. "We never got the feel that they were laughing at us instead of with us, but everyone has their preconceived notions about people from the South."
Piccolo will be the group's first chance to show off their satire-drenched stereotypes to a Southern audience, who hopefully will appreciate the humor in poking fun of themselves as much as the Fowlers do. —Stratton Lawrence
THE FOWLER FAMILY RADIO HOUR • Piccolo Spoleto's Piccolo Fringe • $15 • (1 hour) • May 26, 27 at 5 p.m.; May 28 at 6 p.m.; May 29 at 7 p.m. • Theatre 99, 280 Meeting St. • 554-6060