Precious Heart (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

What exactly is “dessert theatre?” It’s like dinner theatre but just with dessert, which is the perfect supplement to spending a couple of hours with Fleeta Mae Bryte, a sixtyish Texas spinster with a vivid imagination and a cartload of stories to tell about herself, her family, and her hometown, Precious Heart, Texas. Precious Heart is a “dessert theatre” event, the second production by the Eclipse Theatre Company occupying a cozy performance space off the beaten path in Worthington, Ohio.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart by Ted Karber, Jr., began life in the early 1990s as a submission to a theatre festival in Dayton, going on to enjoy many full productions throughout Ohio and Texas, at long last premiering just outside Columbus. The show is all about Fleeta Mae and her memories of her high school rivalries (you’ll hear a lot about a coy bitch named Emmaline), the lives of those around her in the little town, and her encounters with nymphomaniac armadillos, clandestine waltzing with her dress form, and a strange little creature that may or may not have been an alien. Anything is possible in Fleeta Mae’s world as she has retained a child-like wonder many people loose as they pass into adulthood. There is a certain kind of Grey Gardens-type charm to Fleeta Mae’s hoarding; a reference to the popular paperback Scruples by Judith Krantz being found in her basket of goodies particularly tickled me, as it would any other fan of trashy, soap opera fiction from the “Dynasty” era.

Photo: Craig Roberts – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Greg Smith recreates his performance as Fleeta Mae having performed the role in many productions over the years. Mr. Smith has the part down like a bad habit, but he doesn’t play it as a man in drag; this is not a campy performance that pokes fun at anyone, but rather a man completely embodying a woman’s role as a woman. The show has a few moments with a bit of audience interaction, but this is not an audience participation show at all. Mr. Smith as Fleeta Mae might point you out, make eye contact, or even take a Polaroid with you, but your main job is to sit back, enjoy some sweets, and let the laughter flow.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Mr. Smith makes sure Fleeta Mae’s feelings are known through a pile of expressions that show what she’s really thinking even if she’s trying her darnedest to be polite. Mr. Smith has a way of flicking his Gene Simmons-like tongue out to express Fleeta Mae’s dislike for her nemesis Emmaline that never gets old, and he is great at bringing out props like Fleeta Mae’s scrapbook to share with the audience. Fleeta Mae uses terms like “TV television” and “icebox” taking no mind of how redundant or outdated they may be, and Mr. Smith’s affection for the character is very clear in how he makes her in charge of all of the jokes rather than letting the jokes be on her.

Vintage photo of Fleeta Mae (far left)

The show only feels a bit heavy handed at the very end when the background music rises in volume and Fleeta Mae begins a new adventure with a gentleman caller (who may – or may not – actually be there). Something about the blissfully optimistic scene feels saccharine to me, but I can imagine many would find it an uplifting end to a show full of laughter and old fashioned kitchen table talk.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart is unlike anything I’ve seen in or around Columbus, and that’s a shame. Where else can one get a wide selection of delicious desserts and enjoy a hilarious one-woman show in an intimate setting with plush, comfortable table seating? Fleeta Mae is one of those eccentric characters who is difficult to forget, and Precious Heart is just that: precious with heart.


Take note that the evening performances begin at 7:30pm instead of the usual 8pm, but I recommend arriving closer to 7pm to secure one of the limited seats (there are only five tables with eight chairs each) and getting first dibs at the dessert buffet (I recommend the cream puffs, lemonade, and the streusel-covered apple pie). 

*** 1/4 out of ****

Precious Heart continues through to June 19th at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, Worthington (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/

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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

Sordid Lives (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

Texas has its own brand of southern charm different from the rest, and Del Shores is just the playwright to bring it to life. He has made a career of writing about the exploits of some rather unsavory characters, though whether or not they are unsavory depends on how you look at them. They could just as well be heroes.

Sordid Lives, Shores’s fourth play, tells the story of how a small town and family reacts to the accidental death of one of their own, an elderly woman who tripped over her married lover’s wooden legs on the way to the toilet and bashed her head in. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, it’s a comedy full of some of the strangest characters you’re likely to see this side of “Hee Haw.” Death and infidelity are tricky to make funny, but the enduring popularity of this 1996 play and it’s 2000 film incarnation show that Mr. Shores has found a way to make it work for a great many people.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Danielle Mari (LaVonda), Betsy Poling (Sissy), and Lori Cannon (Latrelle)
 
It’s a real joy to see a comedy with such a large cast, and the characters are so delightfully varied that it would be difficult to confuse one for the other. There are three performers that stand out in the ensemble and make this production worth seeing if for no other reason than to see them at work. Lori Cannon leads the charge as Latrelle Williamson, the uptight eldest daughter of the deceased, playing her part with all seriousness, as do David Vargo as Wardell “Bubba” Owens and Vicky Welsh Bragg as the drunken barfly Juanita Bartlett. They each play this material with such sincerity and emotion that the comedy hits and lands perfectly. Ms. Cannon, Mr. Vargo, and Ms. Bragg never make a false move, even if some of their scene partners aren’t playing their parts with the same kind of gravity. When Ms. Cannon shrieks, “I don’t want to know the truth,” it’s because you know she already does and can’t face it; it’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Mr. Vargo shows real remorse when he reflects on how he treated Brother Boy in the past, making his rescue of him from the hospital that much more meaningful. And Ms. Bragg brings the house down when – in the middle of a scene involving guns and violence – she asks in all seriousness, “Do you think I’m pretty?” These three know exactly what they are doing.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) David Vargo (Bubba), Ralph Edward Scott (G. W.), and Jeb Bigelow (Odell)
 
Also worthy of honorable mention is Kathy Sturm as Noleta Nethercott, who impressed me when she accidentally splashed some mashed potatoes on her wrist during an early scene while she was helping herself to a snack. Without missing a beat, she piggishly lapped it up with her tongue and went on. And maybe it wasn’t an accident or an ad lib after all; it was done so naturally that I could believe it was planned, though executed by someone fully in the moment with a real firm grasp on her character.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Noleta) and Betsy Poling (Sissy)

I must say that one character that slightly disappoints is Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram played by Mark Phillips Schwamberger. Mr. Schwamberger certainly knows his lines and appears to be having a ball in drag, but his interpretation of the character stays firmly on the surface, perhaps owing to the director, Beth Kattelman. While some of his cast members chose to go with the seriousness of their parts to great effect, this Brother Boy doesn’t appear to have any real emotion, not even when he sees his mother in a casket. His final words to her are underplayed in a way that the audience at the performance I attended wasn’t sure that the play had even ended as the moment felt half baked, like it was leading up to something more. A moment of reflection, a half smile that is quickly stifled – something was warranted in that final moment that just wasn’t there. It’s not like it ruins the play or anything, but I did see it as a missed opportunity.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Still, the audience was primed and ready for every comedic moment to play out, no doubt having seen the popular film adaptation, and there was an energy in the crowd that was palpable. I enjoyed this production far more than the film, and it’s a worthy successor to the other fine shows that Evolution Theatre Company has put on so far this season. 

*** out of ****

Sordid Lives continues through to September 26th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

Hand to God (Booth Theatre – NYC)

I was ready for an irreverent, foul-mouthed comedy that would make me laugh out loud, and that’s exactly what I got seeing Hand to God at the Booth Theatre. The play, written by Robert Askins, played MCC in 2014 and the Ensemble Studio Theatre from 2011-2012, and the advertising makes it seem like a cousin to Avenue Q. If having puppets and bad language is enough to link the two, then I guess that is correct, but Hand to God more than stands on its own.

The story takes place in a church in rural Texas where Margery (played dangerously and deliciously by Geneva Carr) is leading a church puppetry group that includes her son, Jason (Steven Boyer), a misfit named Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), and a rather brainy girl named Jessica (Sarah Stiles). Margery’s husband died six months prior, and she has thrown herself into making this small puppet group a success. Timothy is attending the group to basically harass everyone else, especially Jason, poking fun at his puppet, Tyrone. One of the play’s best lines occurs very early when Jessica accuses Timothy of being gay when he is certainly anything but. He retorts, “Let’s see if you can taste the gay when I nut in your mouth!” Half of the audience roared, and I’m sure half wasn’t sure what he meant. I was a roarer.

With the taunting by Timothy, the pressure by his mother to participate in the puppet group, and the pain from his father’s death, Jason develops an alternate personality embodied by his puppet, Tyrone. Tyrone is blunt where Jason is shy and backward; Tyrone curses and calls people out on their crap while Jason remains quiet and reserved. Needless to say, when Tyrone fully emerges he wrecks quite a bit of havoc. So skilled is Steven Boyer at playing both Jason and Tyrone that I accepted them as separate entities, as does his mother Margery and Pastor Greg (Marc Kudish, looking bow-legged in his khakis – not sure if it is the khakis, the way he is carrying himself, or if he actually IS bow-legged, but I’ve never noticed it when I’ve seen him before), both of whom think the puppet is possessed by Satan. Jessica, the object of Jason’s affection, knows what is really going on and hatches a plan of her own to (hilariously) deal with the situation.

If director Moritz von Stuelpnagel fails the material at all it is near the end when there is some shocking violence that is so well handled and intense that it makes it difficult to laugh anymore. Or perhaps the playwright made things too deadly serious at the end, shifting the tone unnecessarily. Even if the play does fizzle out at the very end, the rest of it is so terribly enjoyable and wild and the small cast so game and talented that I recommend it to anyone not offended by simulated sock puppet fellatio. It’s real, people, and it’s beautiful.

*** out of ****