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Gerrie Benzing brings Southern belle charm to role of Mabel Cantwell


gerrie-1On stage now at Lab Theater is Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. Right out of the gate, it’s important to note that this is a play written for and about men. Don’t misunderstand. There are female characters in this political drama. But as The Best Man was written in the 1950s, the parts of Alice Russell, Mabel Cantwell and Mrs. Gamadge are at best secondary and at worst stereotypes of the arm candy sported by the male politicians of yesteryear.

While women earned the franchise in 1929, they gerrie-3were in no way regarded as men’s equals in the 1950s. In spite of the responsibilities they assumed in the workplace during World War II and the correlative hardships they endured, men expected them to return to their pre-ordained role as wives, mothers and homemakers. College? Less than 2 percent of enrollments at America’s universities consisted of females. The disparity between what men and women were paid for the same work was much, much greater than the 71% disparity that exists today. Women were not regarded as gerrie-4professional or management material. Back then, women’s professions were relegated to nursing and teaching. Parents and teachers had narrow expectations for girls. Their destiny was marriage, a home and a family, with work no more than an interim measure between leaving school and walking down the aisle.

That’s not to say there were no women in politics. There were actually some women in both the U.S. House of Representative and the United States gerrie-6Senate. But they were rare, and were often appointed to fill vacancies caused by the deaths of their husbands. And few held leadership positions in the Congress, never mind their political parties. And so Gore Vidal can be forgiven for writing characters in the form of Alice Williams and Mabel Cantwell who have little say in the decisions and conduct of their politician husbands.

That notwithstanding, Gerrie Benzing is a breath of fresh air in the role of Mabel Cantwell. Unlike the original play and most revivals since then, Benzing does not play the part of a vacuous sex kitten. She does not come across as a lush or borderline alcoholic. Instead, Benzing’s Mabel Cantwell is the penultimate 1950s Southern Belle eager to bring gerrie-9Southern charm and sensibilities to the White House long before Lady Bird Johnson actually did.

Descriptions of Mabel Cantwell often label her naïve, superficial, catty and vain. Not so for the Mabel Cantwell who inhabits the Lab Theater stage. Benzing’s Mabel is charming, slightly helpless and extremely polite. While she staunchly supports her man no matter what (he may have done in the Aleutian Islands during the war), she’d rather burst into flames than display anger in public. That would be an unconscionable breach of the social etiquette gerrie-10that’s so important in Southern society.

Her Southern upbringing is on full display in her interactions with former President Art Hockstader. Even though the President is at odds with her husband and blocks his path to the presidency, she is sweet, polite and, above all, respectful to the man who once held the office her husband aspires to fill. Impeccable manners is a trademark of all card-carrying Southern belles.

Loyalty to family and friends is a signature of full-fledged Southern belles, as well. Although cognizant that Alice gerrie-11Russell looks down on her and that the two of them will never be friends, Mabel seeks to find common ground with Alice by pulling out pictures of her children and asking to see photos of Alice’s sons in return. Yes, Mabel Cantwell would love to assume the role of First Lady, she is first and foremost a mother and wife. That’s not only a reflection of her values. It is who she is.

gerrie-12Looks are important in Mabel Cantwell’s world. She’d never dream of leaving her house or hotel room looking a mess. Hair must be done. Makeup must be perfect. She must sport just the right dress. Appearance is important in the South, for good or for bad. As someone once said, “You must always leave the house like you’re about to meet the love of your life.” Or the press or a former president, if you know what I mean.

And then there’s the matter of drinking. Southern gerrie-13belles of the ’50s did not swill beer or sip wine. They certainly did not drink margaritas or rum drinks with little umbrellas popping out over the top of their glass. They preferred Jack Daniels or Johnny Walker. But a dry Beefeater martini shaken not stirred will do in a pinch, and don’t be fooled by her petit frame or demur smile. Mabel Cantwell can drink her husband, Art Hockstader and the rest of those good old boys under the table without getting a coiffed hair out of place on her pretty little head.

By infusing Mabel Cantwell with Southern belle traits gerrie-16and characteristics, Benzing and director Rick Sebastian provide this character with depth, dimension and warmth not actually found within the four corners of the script. That’s to their credit and the audience’s overall benefit and enjoyment. It also accentuates the pain Mabel Cantwell suffers when William Russell threatens to expose her husband’s putative gay relationship with an Army lieutenant with whom he served during the war. And it ups the stakes for the way in which Vidal ends the play.

gerrie-18Lab Theater audiences last saw Gerrie Benzing in Miss Witherspoon, where she played the part of Maryamma. Some of her past favorite roles include Sharee in Dixie Swim Club, Veta in Harvey, and Bella Manningham in Angel Street (Gaslight). Gerrie is Creative Director of She has written numerous children’s plays and hundreds of monologues for clients all over the world, helping dozens of children win movie roles, theater auditions, talent shows, pageants and secured professional representation. Gerrie also contributed original gerrie-17monologues to the book Active Listening by Michael Rost and J.J. Wilson.



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