“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,” wrote Thomas Wolfe; that’s the thought that filled my mind while seeing the Curtain Players production of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a play about a reunion of James Dean fans flocking back to their Texas hometown twenty years after the actor’s death. Of course, some of the women never left, some left and came back, and still others are returning for the first time; and then there is one who can never come back as they are no longer the same person.
Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was first performed in Columbus forty years ago, eventually making its way to Broadway and then to film in 1982. Set in a 5 & Dime store in McCarthy, Texas, the play shifts time periods from 1975 to 1955 to tell the story of a group of friends from high school reuniting to catch up on their lives and commemorate the life of their teen heart throb, James Dean. There is Mona (Kathylynn St. Pierre), who stayed behind and raised her son Jimmy Dean, whom she says was the result of a one-night stand with James Dean while he was on location in nearby Marfa filming Giant; Sissy (Kasey Meininger), the buxom wild girl who left town but returned five years earlier after a divorce; Stella May (Adriana Pust), the pushy, loud and proud Texan; Edna Louise (Sara Priest), eternally naive and pregnant; and then there is Joe (Patrick Petrilla), who has returned as Joanne (Erin Daily), shocking the group with his transition but also prepared to reveal the truths so many of them have hidden.
Standouts in the cast are Kathylynn St. Pierre as a willowy Mona, both fragile and stubborn at the same time, trying so desperately to hold up a useless facade; Erin Daily is often inscrutable as Joanne, making her revelations about the women all the more surprising and powerful; Kasey Meininger plays Sissy quite a bit like Cher did in the film while still bringing a vitality all her own; Adriana Pust is a strong and domineering Stella May; and Patrick Petrilla is a sensitive and forelorn Joe, a tricky part as it requires him to come off as closeted while also genuinely infatuated with the young Mona.
Director Mark Blessing expertly navigates telling parallel stories and switching time periods using the same location and most of the same actors (the exceptions being Carly Young playing Mona and Caitlin Brosnahan playing Sissy as teenagers). This switch proved to be confusing in Robert Altman’s film version, but the subtle shifts in lighting as well as costume Mr. Blessing employs here do the trick perfectly. The director and his wife, Deborah, are also responsible for the meticulous set decor of the Five & Dime, with the set designed with a real eye for the time period and requirements of the story by Drew Washburn. There is even a vintage menu with movable letters and prices for the food items for sale at the counter; it truly looks like a shop open for business!
Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was certainly ahead of its time by bringing up the subject of being transgendered forty years ago, though I wouldn’t call this a gay show by any means. In fact, the story comes off like Joe transitioned because he found it more acceptable to become a woman rather than being gay, not because he was fulfilling a dream of being his “authentic self” like is the accepted narrative of today; this stereotype that gay people actually want to be the opposite sex has surely been debunked by now. Still, I get the impression that Joe reappeared as Joanne in the play as a device to show how people can make a complete 180, and how our memory of people may be frozen in time and bear no relation to the reality of the moment. Joanne holds a mirror up to Mona, Sissy, and Juanita (Kate Charlesworth-Miller, the proprietor of the 5 & Dime shop) to reveal truths about their past that they would prefer remain hidden, all the while coming from someone who is familiar to them as Joe while still being a stranger as Joanne. The discussion of being transgendered or transitioning is fairly superficial in this piece, but the fact that it was a plot point at all was certainly revolutionary for the time even if in retrospect it represents a rather archaic view of the topic.
Curtain Players’ Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is nostalgic in the best way, a play about memories, the past, and the challenges of friendship. Sometimes it takes a very dear friend to tell you the truth about yourself in a way that you can understand and accept, and this message of the play is quite clear in this handsome production. This is one of those plays that works all on its own but can also instigate a lively discussion afterwards.
*** out of ****
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean continues through to February 21st in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/4_five_and_dime.php