Reviewed by Stephen Radosh

It’s mid-October, which means that Halloween is just around the corner and a new theatre season is now underway.  Luckily, for everyone who is a fan of both, The Desert Rose Playhouse has chosen the perfect offering. THE SUGAR WITCH, by Nathan Sanders, is a juicy concoction of Southern Gothic horror revolving around the last survivors of the Bean family of Sugar Bean, Florida; a once rich and powerful clan that has been suffering for several decades under a curse placed on them by the Sugar Witch to right the wrongs made by the family’s now deceased patriarch.

Living on the edge of a swamp filled with enough dangers (flying cats, for one) to make even Harry Potter turn and run, Moses Bean (Jacob Samples) and his sister, Sisser (Leanna Rodgers) come face to face with the family curse.  A brutal murder occurs plunging them into a labyrinth of darkness as they try to cover their tracks and keep the morbidly obese and developmentally challenged Sisser from spending the rest of her days behind bars. Annabelle (a haunting Kimberly Cole), the current Sugar Witch, for reasons that soon become crystal clear (and would constitute a major spoiler), decides it is time to end the curse once and for all that very night. Suffice it to say, as is the case in many a Southern Gothic tale, dark secrets long kept hidden from the light of day come tumbling out providing a few interesting and, dare I say, surprising twists, At the heart of the play, underneath all the trappings of ghosts, witches and curses, are issues of universal relevance. The play touches on such matters as revenge which can and often does turn into blind hate and anger.  It also deals with the incredibly destructive force of racism and its polar opposite, love, when Moses is willing to do anything including sacrificing himself to protect his sister and keep her from harm.

Toby Griffin’s beautifully executed set truly depicts a house situated on the edge of bayou country, or, at least, the start of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It is further enhanced by the richly atmospheric lighting design created by Phil Murphy.

Mr. Wayne is the play’s director and deserves kudos for assembling one of the best ensemble casts I have seen in the Coachella Valley. As the mentally handicapped and dangerously overweight Sisser Bean, Leanna Rodgers gives a fiercely intense and frequently funny performance and she does it while wearing a fat suit! Jacob Samples as her brother Moses shows us not only his love for his sibling but also allows the strain of being a caretaker show through making him all the more likeable and real. Kelly Peak plays Hank Hartley, the soon-to-be love interest for Moses. Although the part is somewhat underwritten Mr. Peak still manages to infuse it with warmth and an exploding passion when his longing for Moses turns out to be joyously mutual. But it is Kimberly Cole’s performance as Annabelle, The Sugar Witch that gives the play its spine, strength and humanity.  She is a woman who loves life and its wonders. Yet she has all the strength and conviction to see what needs to be done and does it in order to return love and harmony to those haunted by their families’ pasts.

So hop on your Bayou Boat or broomstick and head on over to the Desert Rose Playhouse to catch The Sugar Witch running until October 28, 2018.  For further information or to order tickets go to their website or call 760-202-3000.