By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Old television shows never die; they stubbornly live on in cable reruns, DVD boxed sets, online and now as theatrical productions. Like popular movies, from Sunset Boulevard to Shrek, that have been made over into Broadway musicals, some of TV's best-loved series are returning repurposed as stage material. And why not? Taste-tested by generations of TV-tray babies, these shows can be reheated as theatrical comfort food, always reliably bland and easy to swallow.
Two area theaters have turned to 1960s TV faves this month. Garland Civic Theatre has a scarily accurate and fairly hilarious version of The Beverly Hillbillies on its stage. And Fort Worth's Butterfly Connection group revives, not quite as successfully, two vintage episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Hillbillies, directed for GCT by Linda Ewing, earns points right away for finding local actors who look a heapin' helpin' like the Clampett clan. Dan Tillman is right smart playing the slow-whittlin' Uncle Jed, the Ozark patriarch who strikes oil while "out shootin' at some food" (the theme song retold the premise every week and it opens the show in Garland). As Californy-hatin' Granny Moses, Janye Anderson keeps up a geriatric jitterbug of hops and elbow jabs that's as funny as all get-out. Arielle Engle owns the whispery voice and voluptuous curves to portray critter-huggin' teenage bombshell Elly May. And Chris Edwards flings himself into the role of Cousin Jethro Bodine, imitating and deviously sending up both the L'il Abner-like character and actor Max Baer's wide-eyed, lunk-hunk TV performance way back when.
If everyone in this production did it up as big as Edwards does Jethro—and if they'd only turn and wink at the audience a time or two after the cornier bits—Beverly Hillbillies could be as campy a hit as Uptown Players' all-drag Facts of Life last summer. (That show, by the way, returns for a short reprise April 5-7 at the Rose Room.)
Too bad the Hillbillies stage play isn't kitschy at all. It's a straight-up version of the TV comedy dating back to 1968 when playwright David Rogers and series creator Paul Henning adapted several installments of The Beverly Hillbillies (which had premiered on CBS in 1962) into a three-act theater piece. Since every half-hour of this series followed the same barebones plot—the Clampetts threaten to move back to Bugtussle, and bank prez Milburn Drysdale (Terry D. Abshire) convinces them not to—it's hard to figure out which episodes they chose to blend. Not that it matters. The Beverly Hillbillies never made a lick of sense anyway.
Like members of some Peruvian hill tribe untouched by modern civilization, the Clampetts were plunked into midcentury Los Angeles inexplicably unfamiliar with telephones, radios, gas stoves, ice trays and doorbells ("Ever time I go to lookin' fer that music, somebody comes to the door," says Jethro in the play). The series tried for cornpone commentary on social stratification, with the uncouth Clampetts always irking next-door neighbor Margaret Drysdale (played at GCT with big comedy flourishes by Julie T. Penkava). She was the edjumacated snob representing highfalutin city folk who looked down their noses at the "hillwilliams" threatening the status quo.
Despite the pressure by the Drysdales and others to assimilate to life among the swells, the Clampetts stayed true to homespun beliefs. They were content to be befuddled by such things as their swimming pool, which they called the "cement pond." And they never understood that the "fancy eatin' table" was for billiards.
Gawd, they were dumb. Circuitous wordplay and lamebrain puns based on the Clampetts' ignorance were hallmarks of Hillbillies dialogue.
"I suppose he went to Eton as a boy," says the private school headmistress, referring to Jethro.
"Jethro went to eatin' as soon as he was born," answers Uncle Jed.
In Garland, the audience laps up two hours of these groaners. And the bigger the laughs, the better for a comedy this creaky.
The icing on the flapjacks in this show is how loyal they are to the external details. Costumer Paul McKenzie has dressed the Palins—oops, the Clampetts—in what look like stitch-for-stitch gingham-and-denim doubles of their TV wardrobe. Uncle Jed's hat has that raccoon-chewed brim and Jethro's high-water blue jeans are so tight he doesn't really need that knotted-rope belt to keep them up. Homely Miss Jane Hathaway (played with funny clutch-the-pearls flair by Taylor Granlund) doesn't have quite the right wig, but she does wear a boxy tweed suit and plain-Jane flats, just like her TV Land doppelganger.
It's all a strange trip back through the TV time tunnel to an era in American life when many families still had country cousins not that distantly removed from Jed and all his kin. The characters' confounding naïveté, mixed with their sweet-natured common sense, made them welcome guests in America's living rooms. From 1962 to 1971, first-run episodes often drew more than 50 percent of the available national TV audience. Astounding.
The moral of every story on the Hillbillies was that city dwellers—the Drysdales and their ilk—were just as laughably stupid as the hicks from the sticks. The show didn't offend anyone because it skewered both ends of the social spectrum, with sophisticates usually out-thunk by Uncle Jed, who could whittle every dilemma down to some simple solution. In the play he's a step ahead of the FBI in figgerin' out a blackmail plot hatched by a couple of con artists (played by Ben Westfried and Nicole Granville).
Just like on the TV show every week, everything in the stage version turns out fine as frog's hair in the end, with the four main characters waving "Y'all come back now, heah?" to the audience from the mansion's front door. Yep, they keep saying goodbye, but they never really go away.
The greatness that was television in the early 1960s meant that The Beverly Hillbillies and The Twilight Zone could co-exist on the same network, CBS. Rod Serling's Twilight Zone was a brilliant sci-fi anthology that introduced abstract concepts in dramas that always paid off with unexpected, often unsettling twists. Two of the best episodes, both written with Serling, were "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and the wordless "Two." Those are getting live theater treatment right now by Fort Worth's low-budget Butterfly Connection theater company.
In a makeshift space inside a rundown strip of offices, the BC "theater" is a few rows of plastic patio chairs in front of poles draped with black fabric. But even in a no-frills production, the power of Serling's writing comes through, especially in "Maple Street," set in a neighborhood worried about the threat of a possible UFO. Rumors fly, guns are fired and it turns into a cautionary tale about a Second Red Scare (or, in more contemporary terms, a second 9/11). "Two" is a post-apocalyptic fable about the last man and woman on Earth, enemy combatants who can't quite overcome their distrust of each other.
Directed by Jaime Kinser and Shawn Gann, the plays are best when they're being as abstract as Serling's work. Backlit puppet shapes complement the eerie tone of "Maple Street." Stylized movement replaces camerawork in "Two."
The performances, however, are awkward and amateurish. In their homage to Serling's "land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas," these performers never quite step all the way into the zone.