Spring in her step

When you consider that Dallas-based playwright Angela Wilson mines very familiar territory in her two one-acts, Black Velvet and George and Scheherazade, sad, sad, sad, the little gems she extracts in her dirt-covered fingers are all the more surprising.

Like all playwrights who attempt to cull the dramatic from the mundane, Wilson, who teaches at Mountain View College and has had her plays produced by small theater companies across the country, regards getting her hands dirty with a special thrill. Both one-acts staged together by 11th Street Theater Project under Lisa Cotie's direction are fueled by an aesthetic and humanitarian impulse forged in a social stratum uncharitably (or warmly, depending on the speaker) referred to as "white trash." From fried Spam sandwiches to beer and Twinkies to that terminal white-knight syndrome suffered by so many working-class women, Wilson has crafted these two funny, prickly plays with outside-the-line crayon strokes of local color.

I must say that Black Velvet, the first of the pair, ultimately careened away from the dramatic into the mundaneness not of its characters' lives, but of Wilson's imagination. Black Velvet turns on the axis of a single, repeated joke that I'll reveal to you now; you won't be deprived of any great insight because of the spoiled surprise. Constant references to clambakes and nana sandwiches and being all shook up are made by the male lead, a would-be rock 'n' roller based on Elvis Presley. My ambivalence toward this gimmick is partly personal bias from a critic who visited The King's birth house on several occasions during annual childhood jaunts to Tupelo, Mississippi; I learned pretty much all I wanted to know about Presley at an early age. Still, I think I could present a fairly convincing case that the singer's status as lodestone to Anglo blue-collar America has hardly been underexplored. Coy allusions to the same topic, especially when they're harvested for laughs throughout the duration of a short play, leave a bitter taste in your mouth as the curtain drops.

Still, Black Velvet made me laugh repeatedly, thanks to Wilson's undeniable facility with clever and simple conversation sustained by two adept actors, Shane Beeson and Linda Coleman. Beeson, in particular, pulls off a neat trick inside a role that would've confined a lesser actor like a straitjacket--he lets the rhythm of the playwright's confessional but unobtrusive banter dictate where he should place the Elvis touches. He's never a cartoon, although when discussing his dreams of stardom, he becomes a cartoon's embryo--a cocky youth who lacks the self-consciousness necessary to mature into full-blown swaggering narcissist.

Beeson plays a leather-clad, duck-tailed youth named Selman who meets Carmen (Linda Coleman), a noxiously dreamy young woman who claims to be the daughter of Tennessee's governor. Selman and Carmen dawdle in the green room of a Memphis recording studio to wait their turn at a producer's audition. Carmen's love of music is far less apparent than her desire to find a handsome man with whom to spend the rest of her life; Selman feels conflicted between life as a Man of God or as the superstar he's been groomed to believe he'll become. He knows which one he wants, of course, so the struggle is a charade to compensate for the pressure of the humility his poor Southern upbringing instilled in him.

Linda Coleman, absent for a while from Dallas stages, is always a pleasure to watch, and she imbues Carmen with the key ingredient for conveying a character's witlessness--the monomaniacal pursuit of something, anything, to still the floating sensation of a wandering attention. Carmen's sights shift constantly throughout the play, and when she finally makes her big (and predictable) revelation, Coleman fires her adulation of Beeson with peppery menace.

I had to think for a while why playwright Angela Wilson had always wanted the effervescent, if quickly evaporated, Black Velvet staged with George and Scheherazade, sad, sad, sad, an altogether bluer but more impressive one-act. Then it struck me--the first deals with the dreams of young adulthood, the second a midlife appraisal of them. And both concern how women often victimize themselves much worse than men victimize them with the fantasy worlds they create.

The anti-heroine of George and Scheherazade, sad, sad, sad is a past-forty woman named Helen (Jeanne Everton) who's only semi-relaxed into a late-life marriage with good-natured, insecure George (Carl Savering, in a richly ironic performance). Helen lives in a fantasy world similar to that of Black Velvet's Carmen, but hers has begun to fray around the edges. She likes to watch black and white movies starring Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn and imagine that she is them. She especially loves the movies she's seen many times, because "I always know how they're going to end." But thankfully for Helen and for the audience, her movie fantasies are rendered as a compulsive guilty pleasure, not a Blanche DuBois-like psychosis.

Her marriage to George, a sort of 11th-hour bid to stave off loneliness, hasn't turned out half bad. George is a congenial sort, content to sit with his wife on the front porch munching junk food, drinking beer, and flipping through women's magazines. George is dimly aware of Helen's past as a beauty queen who reminded him, when he met her past her prime, of Barbara Eden. (An actress named Hazel Beasley, who also plays Helen as a young woman on the beach, slips in to do a hilarious Jeannie impression during a fantasy sequence that turns poignant when she's compelled to worry aloud about her fading beauty: "My breasts and bottom have lost their appeal.")

The intelligence with which Jeanne Everton infuses Helen keeps George and Scheherazade, sad, sad, sad from lurching into the stormy currents of menopausal cliche. Helen could've been Lola from Come Back, Little Sheba--a powerful play during its time, but from a post-feminist perspective you want to box Lola's ears and tell her to quit whining. Everton is masterful at delineating jagged little moments of regret with embers of tattered dignity at their core. She should return more to the Dallas stage. All in all, the sheer pleasure of the four central performances in Black Velvet and George and Scheherazade, sad, sad, sad overcome those moments when Angela Wilson's sentimental or melodramatic sides threaten to smother the audience.

In the final analysis, though, the playwright's affection for these dreamers coupled with a canny ear for dialogue that's descriptive but wholly organic suggests Wilson has truly great material lurking inside her. George and Scheherazade, sad, sad, sad is more than halfway there. For now, 11th Street Theater Project has done Wilson proud for this introduction to Dallas audiences.

Black Velvet and George and Scheherazade, sad, sad, sad run through June 7. Call 522-