Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

 

“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.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Erin Dilly (Joanne)
 

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. 

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
 
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.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne) and Kathylynn St. Pierre (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!

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Caitlin Brosnahan (Sissy as a teen), Carly Young (Mona as a teen), and Patrick Petrilla (Joe)
 
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.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne), Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Adriana Pust (Stella May)
 
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

Clever Little Lies (Westside Theatre – NYC)

I remember hearing Jack Lemmon discuss his part in the classic Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot, divulging that a core ingredient of the best comedies is an element of deceit, some facade just waiting to unravel. The time between when the lie begins and it falls apart is fertile ground for all kinds of funny things to happen, the suspense of waiting for the moment when “the jig is up” adding to the effect. Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, in its final week at the Westside Theatre after opening last fall, takes infidelity, one of the most tried and true wells for comedy (see the sitcom “Friends” and Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break!” argument that was a running gag for years), and pairs it with former “That Girl” Marlo Thomas and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” lead Greg Mullavey to mine the rather sordid subject for laughs and uncomfortable situations.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Clever Little Lies begins after a game of tennis between father and son in a locker room where Billy confides to his father Bill about an affair that he is having with a personal trainer. Billy, who is married to Jane and has an infant child, swears his father to secrecy, but it doesn’t take long for Alice, Bill’s wife, to sense that something is wrong. Alice takes it upon herself to invite her son and daughter-in-law over to confront the issue, and what ensues is a night of revelations that leave everyone surprised. It turns out that the “lies” of the title are neither “little” nor “clever” after all.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Marlo Thomas plays Alice with a light touch, enjoyably sneaky as she butts in on problems within her son’s marriage but sly enough to get away with most anything. Ms. Thomas knows how to play this material to land every laugh, and the play comes alive only upon her entrance in the second scene when she grills her husband to extract information about her son, knowing full well that he promised not to say anything. She bypasses this by throwing out all kinds of guesses, quickly followed by, “Don’t say anything if I’m right!” Ms. Thomas turns a character who could be quite a harpy and unlikable into the kind of quick-witted matriarch anyone would be fortunate to have on their team, insidious as she may be.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Greg Mullavey plays her husband Bill, powerless to resist falling under his wife’s control but instilled with a loyalty and understanding that only comes with time. Mr. Mullavey is just as skilled as Ms. Thomas in eliciting laughter from the audience, some of the biggest using his deadpan expression when faced with surprising facts about his wife and son’s secrets. I really bought Mr. Mullavey and Ms. Thomas as a married couple, and it is their chemistry and delivery that makes the piece work.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
I’m not quite sure what to make of George Merrick as the couple’s son, Billy, or Kate Wetherhead as his wife, Jane. Mr. Merrick is quite attractive, but he acts mostly with a scowl and furrowed brow; his intensity works against the comedic qualities of the writing, and his timing is often off in a way that kills lines that would be funny if played differently. Take for example his first scene in the locker room when he confesses his affair to his father; Mr. Merrick rushes into a forced stage cry where he covers his face, his timing so abrupt that at first it appears that he is laughing. It’s hard for me to believe that two people as enjoyable to be around as Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mullavey could have such a jerk as a son, and that’s exactly how Mr. Merrick comes off. Ms. Wetherhead as his wife seems to think going nasal is a part of playing comedy, her voice often pitched higher than expected, though she at least has more to work with once her husband’s indiscretions are revealed; still, I found her only mildly more bearable than her on stage spouse, a most unlikeable couple that deserves each other. It’s almost as if Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead, who have not a thimbleful of chemistry, are from another play or are performing in some acting exercise in which they were carelessly paired up together.

Director David Saint keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, seemingly knowing that it’s his showbiz veterans that will carry the piece, though it’s hard to understand how some glaring flaws in the production appear to have passed by him unchanged. The scene in the car between Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead is startlingly stale, and the vehicle is positioned at an angle on the stage that doesn’t line up with the rear projection footage. Why bother with having the car and the background footage if it is going to be handled so poorly? At least the set of Alice and Bill’s living room designed by Yoshi Tanokura looks inviting, tastefully upscale with a lived in appearance. The majority of the action takes place on this lovely set, which makes the scene in the car and opening scene at the tennis club locker room feel like cheap afterthoughts in comparison.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Still, Clever Little Lies is a cute, compact show with several laugh out loud moments. Though I think it resolves itself a bit too easily at the end and half the cast was not to my liking, it has the feel of a jumbo-sized sitcom, appropriate as it is a great vehicle for its two veteran stars of popular television comedies from the ’60s and ’70s. At just under an hour and a half in length, Clever Little Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, though it is the crackling chemistry and timing of its stars from yesteryear you’ll remember when it’s all over.

**/ out of ****

Clever Little Lies continues through to January 24th upstairs in the Westside Theatre at 407 W. 43rd St. (at 9th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.cleverlittlelies.com/

Mamas’ Drama (Real Good Productions – Columbus, OH)

How well do any of us really know our parents? That’s the question I asked myself after I saw Nanette Marie’s Mamas’ Drama, a work filled with more drama than you can shake a stick at! And that apostrophe in the title is correct as it is the drama for several mamas, the story spanning more than three generations of a family that has lived with secrets. The play is autobiographical as well, based mostly on Miss Marie’s mother, and it just goes to show that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

The story spans from 1929 to 2004, starting with a young Josephine being told by her mama, Millie (Rita Arnold, a force to be reckoned with), that the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t her real daddy. This deceit helps color Josephine’s life. She gets involved with George (an older married man) when she is sixteen, gets pregnant, is beat by her mama when she finds out, and then miscarries! And that’s just within the first fifteen minutes! Before you know it the babies start rolling in along with the infidelities (both George and Josephine are flawed in this regard), and the secrets and lies start building until the truth eventually has to rise to the surface. After seeing this story, I should think most people would heave a sigh of relief that at least their lives aren’t filled with such drama – or are they?

I guess it’s difficult for us to imagine our parents as something other than solely our parents; they are just other people to everyone else, with their own strengths and weaknesses, not the infallible Gods we sometimes picture them to be when we’re little. All of our parents were also young once, doing all of the things we pretend to others that we never did, and they make the rules that work for them even if we don’t agree or understand. Josephine and George were married well over fifty years in spite of their infidelities, and that’s because they defined the terms of their marriage based on their rules. They didn’t exactly have an open marriage, but they chose to overlook things they didn’t want to deal with or considered less important than the overall picture, and this especially caused problems with their oldest son, Steven (played intensely by DeVance Wright). Our parents aren’t perfect people, and their motivations and decisions can’t be neatly bound and explained for us in the way that we might like; sometimes they are messy, and there is nothing you can do but accept it and love them.

 

Photo: Don Sgontz, DSg Photography – Mark E. Pinkston (George), Shelby V. Holden (Josephine), and Chad Michael (Dante)
 
There are many speaking parts in Mamas’ Drama and the cast is quite large, ranging in ability from adequate to incredibly skilled. The powerhouse performance of this piece is by Shelby V. Holden as Josephine, playing her from being a teenager to her eighties. Shelby plays up the naïveté of the young Josephine well, and she helps us understand how it is the craving for attention that drives a lot of Josephine’s choices; she isn’t a mean or manipulative person, just someone who reacts in the moment to what feels right at the time. Shelby has mastered the art of aging on stage with little makeup; subtle adjustments in her clothing, hair, and posture help us see the passage of time. 

Mark E. Pinkston is George, Josephine’s philandering and cuckolded husband, and he also pulls off a remarkable aging process as well as directing the play! Mark’s likability helps us not to hate George as he does some pretty low handed things, and both he and Shelby give life to the characters in a way that we care about them even when they do things that we know will only end up causing more trouble.

Other honorable mentions are for Jesse Nathaniel Robinson as Raymond, Josephine’s long-time love; Yolanda Board as Shirley, Josephine’s best friend who offers the good advice that Josephine never takes; and Syretta Bates as Suzette, the love child of Josephine and Dante (Chad Michael).

What I like most about Mamas’ Drama is its lack of judgement. The characters know when they are doing something they shouldn’t and don’t need to be scolded like children. These are people that live with the consequences of their actions, and there is a lesson to be learned there about forgiveness, acceptance, and the importance of family.

I admit that I got confused a bit when the children started rolling in and the paternity of a few of them was questioned. Still, what is important is that the story be engaging, told well, and be entertaining – Mamas’ Drama is all of that. It’s the kind of play that is sure to elicit gasps from the audience as there seems to be more drama around every corner, but the ultimate destination is one bound for healing and acceptance.

*** out of ****

Mamas’ Drama continues through to August 2nd in the Shedd Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://mamasdramaplaybook.com/previous-productions/