Arts & Culture

An all-inclusive comedy and whodunit, ‘Shear Madness’ is a sheer joy

Pat Swearingen and Brady Wease star in the Southeastern Summer Theatre Institute’s production of “Shear Madness” at Main Street Theatre.
Pat Swearingen and Brady Wease star in the Southeastern Summer Theatre Institute’s production of “Shear Madness” at Main Street Theatre. Special to the Packet/Gazette

The hilarious comedy and whodunit “Shear Madness” opened last week on the stage of the Main Street Theatre to the most outwardly appreciative and participative audience ever.

We loved it. We laughed, we giggled — though sometimes we held our breath in order to hear the next ridiculously funny line. And when we were invited to join in, we did to do our part and help move the murderous plot along.

Many of my fellow audience members are, I’m betting, still laughing as some of the brilliantly entertaining one-liners, double entendres, innuendos, pantomimes and laugh-your-head-off sight gags continue to race through our collective memories.

Let me just say that the Southeastern Summer Theatre Institute has brought the most unique theatrical gift to Hilton Head Island through this cutting-edge, eventful comedy.

Set in a somehow familiar-looking island beauty salon, Sheer Madness, it is at once enormously funny and masterfully blended with a murderous storyline.

Produced by Benjamin Wolfe and directed by Lean Ensemble’s Blake White, along with the counsel of the organizers who oversee the continuation of this longest-running play, saw to localizing the setting and the script. Throughout the evening you’ll be delighted and surprised with the discovery of an actor who says he’s from Ridgeland, someone reading The Island Packet and references to our favorite island locations.

“Sheer Madness” revolves around the complications at the salon and the murder, of course. But the comedy flows through the riotous script, which is further balanced with references to current events, political asides, taglines from commercials and sprinkled with snatches from social media. You will be utterly absorbed and entertained by the most inspired and impressive improvisations.

Created by German writer Paul Portner, the two-act, two-hour comedy is brilliantly carried off by the knockout SSTI New York cast and supported by a staff of theater professionals assembled from all over the country.

The truly unique element in the production was the opportunity offered toward the enhancement of the comedy through the good-natured involvement of the attentive and responsive audience. The crowd, on the evening I saw it, was filled with eager theatergoers and infused with an impressive blended gathering of receivers — who got it — and responders — who reacted to every nuance. So involved was everyone, that, when we were encouraged, we continued through the evening with questions to the players and questions to each other. Even those who were mainly there to simply enjoy the play did so and shared in the enormous good time!

The interactive production begins with an almost 10-minute pantomime, supported by the perfect beauty parlor music, as the cast members appear on stage, carry out their kind of stereotypical activities, with a triumph of good humor and overstatement. Shaving cream, telephones, hair dryers, matching aprons, errant water from the shampooing station, timed entrances and exits, slamming doors and rubber gloves all served as a perfect bellwether for the action that was to follow.

Owner Tony Whitcomb (Pat Swearingen) is wonderfully swishy as he moves, in his special way, from chair to chair and sink to closet and takes on the events of the day. His assistant Barbara DeMarco (Maggie Weston), a buxom, blond beauty in high heels and short shorts, joins him, and together they demand our full attention. A bit later, as the scene is further set, we meet a well-dressed, rather elegant and stylish woman, Mrs. Shubert (Victoria Bundonis), carrying designer shopping bags from the island’s Porcupine.

There’s an older, well-dressed man, an antique dealer — possibly sleazy — Eddie Lawrence (Ian McCabe), who rounds out the foursome, all of whom will later become murder suspects. We also catch short glimpses early on of two rather unidentified, kind of purposefully anonymous patrons, who we find are Mikey Thomas (Brady Wease) and Nick O’Brian (Tom Schwans). No full disclosure at this time, but trust me, they are important to the outcome of our murder mystery.

So, about the murder. An aging pianist, a recitalist, really, Isabel Czerny, who owns the building and lives upstairs, is found murdered. We never meet Mrs. Czerny, but we do hear her rather bombastic interpretations of Rachmaninoff!

The story then, revolves around the murder, solving the murder, the details of the murder, the secret lives of the suspects, who did what to whom, and why, and at last, the final outcome ... whodunit! As the action moves forward, we all are invited to continue in the interaction with the police, the questioning of potential suspects, and at some point, even other members of the audience! Such fun, as together we all set about to solve the crime, that night, our way.

Just so you’ll know how fortunate we are in the Lowcountry, this award-winning, longest-running play will be seen this summer not only on Hilton Head, but in Boston; New York; and Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center. What you also need to remember is that, though it is the same “Shear Madness” everywhere and every time it is performed, it is never, ever the same show more than once!

Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry. Email her at

If you go

  • What: “Shear Madness” runs through Aug. 6.
  • Where: Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main Street Hilton Head
  • When: Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
  • Tickets: $40 for adults; $20 for students
  • Details:, 866-749-2228