(Wayward Actors Company presents Ed Graczyk’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.” Directed by John Hess. Continues through July 6 at the MeX Theater. For tickets, visit www.waywardactors.org or call 584-7777.)
Like the characters in Ed Graczyk’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” we can’t go home again. Our tribal memories of Woolworth’s and W.T. Grant’s lunch counters and sundries are fading. Ben Franklin stores sell mainly craft supplies today. Instead of the venerable five-and-dime stores, we now have deflated dollar stores where everything reeks of cheap plastic gewgaws. In Wayward Actors Company’s “Jimmy Dean,” we are taken back to the glory days of 1975, before all knick-knacks were made in China.
In this 1982 play, originally directed by Robert Altman before he made it into a movie, Bible-thumping Juanita, the local Woolworth’s proprietor, is hosting the 20th reunion of the Disciples of James Dean, who were mere teens when Dean died that fateful night in 1955. Willowy Mona is the dimestore clerk who claims Dean sired her son during the filming of “Giant.” Mona, a master of self-deception, thinks everyone believes her story about Dean.
Flashbacks to 1955 are interspersed over the course of the reunion. The teenagers barely differ from their adult counterparts. Young, slutty Sissy busts out of her teen sweater, and elder Sissy (Janet Morris) still proudly displays her bouncing “bezooms” and boasts of her cemetery rendezvous. Teenager Edna Louise can’t find the Disciples meeting minutes in 1955, and she’s lost them again in 1975. Joe, the only character who achieves change, happens to be the only guy in the play.
After the initial (and lengthy) setup, the characters start to reveal their innermost secrets and face ugly realities they’d be better off hiding from. Will they grow as a result? All signs point to no. Tight-assed Juanita might. Her “dark night of the soul” realization that God doesn’t answer prayers leads her into the comforting arms of whiskey.
Under John Hess’ lackadaisical direction, the Wayward Actors cast is often just that. Some could have used a bit more rehearsal time. To be fair, Kathy Todd Chaney was a late replacement for the character of Juanita. Still, she stumbled over many lines and resorted to a “Mama’s Family” accent to convey her character’s shallowness. (“Yew have nunn,” she twangs in response to Mona’s remark about religious feelings.) Chaney has performed well elsewhere, so I must assume her director has failed her.
Likewise, Hess leaves Pamela Slack (adult Mona) adrift. To compensate, she erects an invisible barrier between her and the audience so we can’t connect. She rushes through her lines in a reedy, quavering voice but then disconcertingly erupts into overwrought paroxysms of hysteria as she delivers Graczyk’s purple prose.
Katie Graviss is spot-on as the skaggy, adult Edna Louise, and Christina Biller is perfect as the sneering, revenge-seeking Joanne. But it’s Morris who stands way out in front (no pun intended) as Sissy. Morris takes us deep inside Sissy’s empty head. I could imagine Sissy putting on her makeup (along with her brave rubber “front”) before schlepping to her truck-stop job, and then crying in her husbandless bed at night. Morris’ facial expression betrays a twinge of derision as Mona retells her Dean story for the umpteenth time. Those sidelong glances speak volumes.
The costumes cunningly convey their timeframes. Sissy’s polyester geometric print minidress could have been plucked from the racks of a pre-disco-era Paul Harris store. Edna Louise’s psychedelic cloth bag looks like Charles Burns drew it for “Black Hole.” The teens’ poodle skirts and red James Dean jackets leave no doubt as to the decade, and the Lone Star beer bottles are a nice touch.
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