Southern cross

If you have spent any time at all in rural Mississippi, you'll know that what the uninitiated may roll their eyes at as exaggeration in plays and films is often simply a wild truth trapped out of context. And if you've ever been in certain small-town Mississippi churches on a Sunday morning, you'll realize that all those East Coast literary critics who accused Flannery O'Connor of grotesque hyperbole have never been to a small-town Mississippi evangelical church on a Sunday morning. The sweating, hollering, and testifying that goes on is its own vernacular, a language that's unintelligible to those who haven't been slain in the Spirit.

There's a shimmering filigree of truth in John Maxwell's Buck-Nekkid, a Southern comedy of evangelical manners staged smartly and vividly by Fort Worth's Stage West. That's appropriate -- the author has spent most of his life in Mississippi and is currently artistic director of New Stage Theatre in Jackson. If this story of the salvation of a bankrupt gas station owner in Moon Mountain, Mississippi, by an unhinged, self-appointed preacher woman turns out to be fluffier than fresh-baked cornbread, you can at least soak up the blue-collar ambience along the way. Director Jerry Russell should be congratulated for guiding his cast with nimble puppet strings, never allowing them to stray so far into hick eccentricity that we can't identify them.

I've written before that I adore Southern Gothic if it's served up right, but Gothic usually only works for middle-to-upper class characters and those who aspire to be such. Those self-deceiving, peering-from-behind-the-shades lunatics would consider the characters in Buck-Nekkid grade A white trash. But the characters generally have no choice but to be honest with themselves and painfully, well, naked about their hurts and desires.

Stressed-out Billy (John Wayne Shafer) is about to lose his gas station thanks to the Texaco down the road siphoning off his business. He also has three handfuls of trouble in nephew Judd (Steven Sandell), a none-too-bright guy with a withered leg who carries a flask of Mad Dog in his back pocket and can't resist the charms of red-headed prostitutes. His addiction gets him kicked out of his mother's house when he tries to sneak one into his bedroom. The gas station's sole employee Wilbur (Bobby Lee Allen) isn't much help; he'd rather sit around, eat doughnuts, and drink Dr Pepper.

The worries would seem to be getting to Billy, as for the past three weeks he has recurrent nightmares about a "big-butted woman" hovering over him. Turns out she's an even bigger nightmare because she's real. Sister Pearle (Judy Keith) has been living in the station cellar, a refugee because of her controversial conversion methods. She bides her time, and then pounces, determined to save Billy from his past as a womanizer: One of the reasons Billy is aggravated so much by Judd's horniness is that it echoes his own sexually reckless youth. She wants to cleanse him not so much from his former promiscuity but from the shame of it. She has a mission for Billy that amounts to town-square confession, and if it requires a gun and some rope...well, the Lord works in practical ways.

The closest any of these actors come to outright Dixie derangement is Judy Keith as Sister Pearle, the woman whose intimate knowledge of the sins of the unsalvaged leads them to do all manner of outrageous, antisocial things. But even when she's waving a pistol or falling on her knees exhorting the Creator, Keith doesn't breathe fire. Rather, she seems to inhale the fumes of a burning bush that the other actors can't see. It's a subtle difference for this kind of character, but Keith doesn't stomp across the stage boards throwing out great gobs of righteousness. She seems to feed on righteousness instead, and a part of her is always foraging for it while she's onstage. Keith gives this character a quality of always listening for the Lord's voice, which takes the actor's ego out of the equation and gives Sister Pearle a quieter, more sincere essence.

The other three actors are fine, too, but Buck-Nekkid delivers whatever poignancy you may take from it in the interactions between John Wayne Shafer as Uncle Billy and Steven Sandell as his nephew Judd. Shafer maintains a core of protectiveness toward childlike Sandell, discernible even as the stressed, debt-ridden Billy rages about Judd's whoring and boozing. It's an important rope to keep hold of, because Billy and Judd will be drawn together in an act of public confession at the play's climax. Sandell is sort of like Woody Harrelson, but more sober and drained of his smugness; as Judy Holliday proved in her best performances, you can only play a dimwit successfully if you can lose all self-awareness in the act (surely, the most difficult thing any actor can do). Sandell directs his energies outward, but doesn't scatter.

Buck-Nekkid gets all gooey at the end. When uncle Billy is compelled to plant a wooden cross on the gas station roof scrawled with the names of all the women he's ever made love to or lusted after (if you look closely, you'll see the names Emma Thompson and Susan Sarandon on that cross), we do feel the playwright winking at us. There are to be no grand pronouncements about the human condition here. Just remember that the word "trifle" also means a very delicious dessert, and you'll be fine. And there's a lot more skill on display than you might think: I shudder to think what a lesser theater troupe might have done to Maxwell's script, which is full of opportunities for actors to chew and spit out the dialogue like tobacco. But as Stage West mounts its 191st production in its 20th year, you can only marvel at the standards they've set for themselves. With a fraction of the budget of Dallas Theater Center and a commitment to North Texas actors, Stage West is far less of a gamble as entertainment value for your hard-earned buck, which includes gas mileage for the trip to Fort Worth. To those who want to take the chance, let me vouch for these folks -- they're usually good for it.

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Jimmy Fowler

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