Wednesday, November 15, 2017

“Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” presented Nov. by Regeneration Theatre-Reviewed

 “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”
Regeneration Theatre, November 2017

"I think the play is interesting and, in some ways, ahead of it’s time. It tries to cover a lot of issues; perhaps too many. But that is so brave for the late 1970s. Some of the attitudes seems dated, but overall the themes of acceptance, and forgiveness make me feel we should have hope. These women are in a very traditional and conservative environment, and if the most religious and bigoted among them can accept this great change in someone she knows, then anybody can. Or at least I would like to believe so. And that is the main reason I wanted to explore this piece in an age of gender fluidity, fighting against prejudice and traditionalism." 

--Barnaby Edwards (Producer)
I love that this theatre's focus is on re-examining shows that were influential and even controversial in their times. Looking at them through a 2017 lens reveals a different perspective.  I had seen Kennedy's Children Off Broadway, also directed by the excellent Erin Soler, and found the revival surprisingly more on target than the original. I never saw "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" on Broadway but vaguely remember the movie with Cher. I had mixed reactions to that film and this play.

Ed Gracyzk set "Jimmie Dean" in a West Texas town in the mid-1970s. It takes place in a dusty old five and dime store. The occasion is the 20-year reunion of the James Dean fan club, and the  local filming of Giant. Mona, who's spent her life in the store, brings everyone home, including an unexpected visitor. The store owner is strait-laced devout Juanita, who I believe is Mona's mother.  Monica Rey plays her with dead pan sincerity. There's also Sissy, Mona's best friend, who did the decorations. Sassy and "in your face," Sissy appears very opposite Mona's pretentious "airs" and nervous anxiety.  Sissy did the decorations that turned the store into a shrine for Mona's icon James Dean. She has a sense of humor about it unshared by Mona--entirely possessed by a religious fervor. Ariana Figueroa's Sissy makes the outrageous truthful. She becomes a kind of moral center for the play, pointing out what's real and not. 

When a yellow Porche comes to this particularly uninviting spot, it is a matter of passing speculation to Mona, though Sissy, Juanita and other celebrants don't miss the driver, a tall well turned out woman, who knows too much about them. I've read enough southern literature, Flannery O'Connor came to mind, to know the terrain. There's the fevered religiosity of southern women to romance, especially failed chances. Brittle Mona fairly echoes Tennessee Williams' Blanche, as she weaves the fable of her life, the college education she gave up to stay home, her transcendent moment being noticed to be an extra on Giant, and the glorious evening on earth, which had given her life meaning! Of course she's not a credible narrator. 

While Mona, a painfully earnest Nicole Greevy, tells Mona's story, her younger self, and those of , young Sissy and a gentle boy named Joe, tell the real story of what actually happened. It's a shocking story that somehow seems much less so in 2017. Time seems to have made this more familiar, and somehow a but lurid, like a TV drama. What had dramatic punch in the 70s, is not a surprise.

Joe and Sissy and Mona were friends, who dressed up and sang like a girl group. Mona and Joe were besties and Sissy had sex on the gravestones. Oh, and did I tell you there's a boy, Mona's son, called Jimmy Dean, after his dad, who she thinks is retarded?( Imagine he could never match up to his namesake so she invented this? Never explained) Amid the recall of fun times, the rituals of the fan club, we see the ghosts of the past play out the town's brutalization of Joe. With a status lower than the dogs, Joe has to leave the town, his friends, and most of all, Mona.  

2,000 saw The Laramie Project, a play about reactions to the murder of a Univ. of Wyoming gay student. Based on the true story, the play blasted open the vein of virulent homophobia in the West. "Come Back to the Five and Dime" exposes the context. The rigid class system based on family standing , while underneath fear driven racism and homophobia. The deluded pretense of class and virtue are Mona's display, in a time when refined people didn't openly acknowledge unacceptable truths. The play was in a way a death knell for repressed 1950s cultural mores and a herald for the new worlds of 1960s-70's' emotional openess and sexual experimentation.

In Jimmie Dean, Mona is hiding behind her pretense of a conventional life, while her ghost of a double enacts real passion for Joe. Her failure in life, pointed out by the stranger, is her failure to acknowledge real love.  Sissy looks for deeper meaning in the tawdry life she's accepted and then sees it.  Juanita even sees her retreat from truth about her husband. In the end, only Joe the outcast, is the master of his fate. As the old friends unite, they meet their pasts and reconcile--until the next reunion in 20 years. In the end, they celebrate not James Dean, the icon, but Mona's son, who's driven off in the yellow Porche to a new life. A perfect tribute. You get the boy will be his own person, no matter how others try to limit him.

The cast of this production were on target for the pathos and self-delusion, as each hears what really happened and must deal with it. Joe and the "Stranger," Joanne, were played by Elliot Frances Flynn and Chris Clark. Flynn's speechless vulnerability and Clark's dignified self-possession were very effective. Young Mona, Lynnsey Lewis, and young Sissy, Sonja Gabrielsen, were credible in difficult roles; not ghosts but people enclosed in some odd parallel world. Kristin Sgarro's Stella May and most of all, Rebecca Miller's Edna, livened the party with physical humor truly intrepid.


Next from Regeneration is As Is, running Feb 1-11, 2018. at the Workshop -

William M Hoffman's 1985 play highlights the often forgotten heroes but essential people that are part of the American healthcare system and keep it going against unimaginable odds, the workers in the system, the families of the sick ans their friends. 

In an age where everything has become politicized at the expense of the sick and in need, this story of fear, rejection, and acceptance in the early stages of the AIDS crisis in New York City has resonance and messages for us today about the importance of recognizing that we are all human, with very human needs and deserve the dignity each of us hopes to receive.

--Barnaby Edwards,

Monday, November 13, 2017

THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES, the unsung heroine of America's "secret war" who decrypted nazi spies

"[Elizebeth Friedman] was a tireless and talented code breaker who brought down gangsters and Nazi spies...a fascinating swath of American history that begins in Gilded Age Chicago and moves to the inner workings of our intelligence agencies at the close of WWII." 
Los Angeles Times

I am joining the praise for Jason Fagone's excellent nonfiction, THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES: A True Story of Love, Spies and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies. Elizebeth Smith Friedman's story is as unlikely as real life and full of surprises--outlandish and entirely plausible. Her impressive achievements were of course co-opted by male authority. An old story, but among those men was J. Edgar Hoover, whose gumshoes could track gangsters though not the boats of rum runners.  He had no unit skilled at decrypting codes, though the coast guard did. Elizebeth's rare skills and the unit she trained, invisibly brought down the profiteers. Then her group's work escalated with WW2 and the stakes became more dire. 

Nazis spies and allied cryptologists, the Coast Guard on one side of the Atlantic, colleagues at Bletchley on the other, worked to win the "secret war." As South America came into play, a beachhead in the Americas for the Third Reich, Elizabeth decoded the networks and individuals involved, as well as the infernally complex Enigma machines.  She did not just crack an Engima machine's code, but even figured out the wiring of advanced machines she never saw. Her achievments in advance or simultaneous with Bletchley mattered little to her. Elizabeth shared information as it occurred. So it was immediately useful.

Her beginnings and that of the science of cryptology began on an eccentric tycoon's estate outside of Chicago. It was here that Elizebeth, a young Quaker schoolteacher, was hired to find secret messages thought to be embedded in Shaekspeare's plays. William Friedman, a Jewish biologist, tasked with raising new crops, fell in love with Elizebeth and gained a life long code- breaking partner. 

Theirs was a marriage of equals, though William was the celebrated "genius." The female half of the "Adam and Eve" of the National Security Agency, may have superceded him with her own innovations, but it mattered not to her.  Love and support were essentials for this marriage, rivalry wasn't part of their story. In one incident, where she attracted publicity, she learned being a press darling made her less effective in the world of secrecy.  

The history begins with  Elizebeth at 84, as she's interviewed by a young woman, a government employee recording her history--also that of the beginning of the NSA. Characteristically modest, Elizabeth was a bit flustered as to why she is of interest. William's writings were well known. In this fascinating history, Fagone shows the fantastic that was not known--including the workings of an original mind.

For Elizebeth doing the job well was the reward for solving puzzles with significant outcomes in the real world. her story joins that of Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, whose contributions, though hidden, affected history. Fagone also shows how her  lack of recognition--no titles, awards-- cost her later in life.  Being a loving caretaker and mother, a good neighbor were no less valuable to her than a WW2 career she kept secret. But barely surviving on reduced funds was a serious hardship.

When files of WW2 were finally declassified this story could be told. It's inspiring for girls who aspire to a technological career or bookish ones, who like young Elizebeth, was more interested in literature than science. The love story and the marriage of equals was very moving.  I found it amazing that William never forgot his success was shared and that he preferred working with his wife, over the mythology of solitary genius. Yet it's his name on their books. Jason Fagone's THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES may be the only book about Elizebth Smith Friedman.

A note, they left their library to the Thurgood Marshall Library, where it could be read by the public.