By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Not a bad time to invest in an entertainment stimulus package. Two just-opened shows are pretty fair bets, paying off with a high percentage of laughs at the expense of a few morally bankrupt characters.
At Uptown Players is the Southwest premiere of Del Shores' The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, a tragi-comedy with music about blue-collar misery. The wonderful Cindee Mayfield stars as battered spouse Willadean Winkler, a simple woman who finds solace in bonding with her trailer park gal-pals and trying to heed the life-coaching messages of daytime talk shows.
Slopping around in a saggy denim skirt, Willie does the best she can. She stretches her clipped-coupon budget to feed alcoholic truck-driver husband J.D. (T.A. Taylor) his dinner of tuna casserole and "cherry dump delight." And she looks up a new word a day in the dictionary, telling herself "I will not shrivel up and die." Willie also makes a daily ritual of watching Oprah, Dr. Phil and Judge Judy with her neighbor, LaSonia (Laura Warner). The TV hosts' "What you believe, you can achieve" mantras inspire Willie to visualize a better life, which would be just about anything outside the dreary Ennis, Texas, trailer house where she's practically a shut-in.
Excitement happens with the arrival of a new slut on the slag heap, one Rayleen Hobbs (Melissa Jobe), a five-times-married cocktail waitress on the far side of 40. In the peculiar caste system of the trailer park, Rayleen, a divorcee living in a "camper top," is looked down upon by proper double-wide society. Dressed in cut-offs that don't quite cover her jiggly ass, Rayleen tries to make friends with Willie. But LaSonia (pronounced "like the noodle dish") warns that the new one is trouble. "She's trash that won't burn," LaSonia declares.
Rayleen is funny, though, talking to the women about her befuddlement at computer technology. "I don't git the Internet," she muses. "I cain't wrap my mind around fish tacos neither."
When Willie discovers that Rayleen has taken up with J.D., it's the final blow to what's left of her wifely dignity. With dreams of earning enough as a Walmart greeter to move closer to her estranged gay son (never seen), Willie plots a getaway.
For most of Trials and Tribulations, it's as if these folks two-stepped right off the set of My Name Is Earl. The laugh lines are loud and plentiful; the jokes as bold as Rayleen's peacock blue eye shadow.
Shores, known as the "Molière of L.A." for his popular, gay-themed comedies, has a great ear for the small-town Texas idiom, something used to good effect in his other plays, Sordid Lives and Daddy's Dyin', Who's Got the Will? But after a 90-minute first act, the short second act of Trials and Tribulations abruptly shifts into darker, decidedly unfunny territory. And this is where Shores' latest play comes unhitched.
Trials and Tribulations is schizophrenic: top-heavy as a broad comedy about life among the have-nots and then veering into lightweight social commentary on the horrors of spousal abuse. It's not enough to allude to J.D.'s mistreatment of Willie, the playwright puts it onstage in several long, violent bursts of punching and kicking. And the way J.D. gets his comeuppance at the end is momentarily satisfying, but leaves questions about how free Willie's future will be as a result, except maybe as a defendant-turned-guest on one those talk shows she loves.
And then there's the music in the show by Joe Patrick Ward. A mysterious black woman (Crystal Ramon) in red dresses floats through scenes like a glamorous angel, belting tunes that are pleasantly but generically bluesy. Shores used a similar singing narrative for Sordid Lives. Here, it just seems to interrupt the rhythm of the storytelling. (Nice singing by Ramon, though, and great piano work by Scott A. Eckert.)
Were it not for strong direction by Cheryl Denson—she kicked up the weaker comedy bits and camouflaged some of the violence—and the deeply nuanced performances of Mayfield, Warner and Jobe, this play would be not much more than a twangy soap opera about hicks from the sticks. There's something about how these actresses work with each other, however, that makes their characters so real it almost hurts to laugh at their painful circumstances. Mayfield plays Willie as a vulnerable, whipped pup, but she's also believably hopeful and resilient. As Rayleen, Jobe is fearless, playing the big comedy brilliantly and then letting the character's self-loathing peek through her fleshy bravado. Her Rayleen may be trash that won't burn, but Lord love her, she knows it.
The Trials and Tribulationsof a Trailer Trash Housewife
Smart, rich people cheat on their spouses too. The educated swells have a hard time keeping their couplings from overlapping in Theatre Three's Don't Dress for Dinner, a French farce staged with about as much French flavor as a Luby's Luann platter. No faw-faw accents on display here, which is perfectly fine. Fake Français would only be distracting in a play whose characters are constantly confused about who they are and with whom they're supposed to be sleeping.