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,