By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The years have been kind to The Oldest Living Graduate. The last play in Preston Jones' Texas Trilogy holds up even better than the second in the series, Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas did a dandy Lu Ann last season. They have a not-so-dandy Graduate running now and will attempt the first play in the trio, The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, next year.
These are great plays—that's evident even when the acting and directing in a production aren't up to snuff. When the trilogy premiered to critical acclaim at Dallas Theater Center in the early 1970s, Jones, who wrote the first script while working in the DTC box office, was hailed as the next Tennessee Williams. But the trilogy flopped on Broadway, and Jones was dead by the age of 43, not living long enough to live up to or live down the lofty comparison.
It's nice to see and hear Graduate again, even in a version that doesn't know what it's doing most of the time. Jones wrote tight, all-out funny scenes that lead to small, quiet moments that touch deep emotions. His characters depict real Texas types, but lovingly and in specific detail. His dialogue has that easy-on-the-ear patois of hard West Texas drawls, mixed with the playwright's colorful verbal inventions. Like this from Graduate's title character, Colonel J.C. Kinkaid, the last surviving member of the 1905 class of Galveston's Mirabeau B. Lamar Military Academy: "Not worth it. Not worth a bumble-dickin', goddamned thing! It ain't no honor to be the oldest living anything. Oldest living graduate, oldest living Indian, oldest living armadillo, oldest living nuthin', 'cause that means you're all alone!"
The Oldest Living Graduatecontinues through June 29 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Call 214-828-0094.
The Drowsy Chaperonecontinues through June 15 at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Call 214-631-ARTS.
Kinkaid is supposed to be about 75 when the play takes place in 1962 over a couple of blistering summer days and nights in fictional Bradleyville, Texas (somewhere near Big Spring). In a wheelchair from injuries suffered in World War I, which claimed most of his schoolmates, the Colonel rattles around the sprawling ranch house he shares with his 42-year-old son Floyd and boozy daughter-in-law Maureen. They're childless because, as the Colonel explains, Maureen is "as barren as a 30-year-old ewe."
Floyd's already hit oil on the Kinkaid spread, so there's plenty of Giant-type money to spend on cars and "Neiman and Marcus" fur coats. But Floyd aims to make another killing by parceling off his father's old lakeside property into a vacation development called "Mumford County Estates." A letter from the military school offering to honor the Colonel with a hometown ceremony—an event that could attract some of the school's top brass and a few platinum-level alumni—makes Floyd itch to convince his dad to relinquish his sentimental hold on the empty acreage.
What happens to the old man when he refuses to give up the land, or take part in the "oldest graduate" honors, is at the center of the play, so it's by-God important, as the Colonel might say, to cast the right actor for the main role. At Contemporary, the part has gone to John S. Davies, a good actor who's just all wrong for a frail, shell-shocked septuagenarian. Davies is a tall, solidly built bull of a man who looks to be about 50 in real life. His actual age isn't the problem. Randy Moore, who originated the role of Colonel Kinkaid at Dallas Theater Center three decades ago, was in his early 30s when he played it. The difference is that Moore made the audience absolutely believe he was elderly, not with elaborate makeup, but with the voice, movement and rhythms of a sickly, senile codger in the twilight of his life. He was brilliant, miles better even than Henry Fonda's Colonel in the 1980 live TV telecast of the play—and by then Fonda was sickly and old.
Davies comes at the part as if he were playing General Patton. He bellows, he roars, he throws his big arms around with a force beyond the capacity of someone who's already suffered a stroke. In the angry confrontations with Floyd, Davies gets so worked up he comes close to jumping out of the wheelchair to get in the other actor's face. Davies' version of Colonel Kinkaid is so bellicose and humorless, it's hard to like him. That throws the balance of sympathy toward Floyd, played with such perfectly subtle, low-boiling resentment by Russell DeGrazier that the production could be renamed The Son of the Oldest Living Graduate.
With Davies leading the charge, the Contemporary cast's performances take on a forced momentum that rushes them through Jones' carefully constructed speeches and steamrolls over the whole lazy West Texas-ness of the play. If only director Cynthia Hestand had allowed the actors to take more time, let a little air in between lines and just relax, it would feel so much more authentic, so much funnier, so much more Preston Jones.
Certainly, this production looks better than it sounds. The set by Kristen Richter appears to be a prop-for-prop interpretation of Jones' own description of the Kinkaids' paneled den, right down to the deer head mounted over the gun rack. Costumes by Aaron Patrick Turner hit and miss, however. Floyd and his business partner, Clarence Sickenger (Reg Platt), sport the Stetsons and boots of West Texas big shots of the era. As Maureen, Sue Loncar is stuck in a sloppily styled brunette wig and a shapeless, sleeveless dress the color of Easter chicks. Maureen's no fashion plate, but she'd never be this tacky. For whiny visitor Martha Ann Sickenger, costumer Turner puts actress Catherine Wall in a fuchsia sheath dress and pillbox hat—kind of a stretch for the summer of '62 and a too-obvious nod to the style of then-First Lady Jackie. The Colonel's shirt and boots look too crisp and youthful, and surely he'd never wear his old WWI army dress uniform jacket over jeans to meet the academy commandant.