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And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little; Tractor Pulls for Jesus

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AND MISS REARDON DRINKS A LITTLE

Element Theatre Company

at the Chicago Actors Project

TRACTOR PULLS FOR JESUS

Imo and Allen

at Sheffield's

You don't want to be around when it first hits you that you're going to die. "No one can stare at the sun or at death for very long," said La Rochefoucauld (today he would add nuclear war). Else everything turns to wormwood, your friends seem trivial, and nothing is worth the trouble.

Fifteen years ago this death spell hit me with a sinking queasiness no Maalox could touch. Though it was high summer, everything around me became a memento mori stinking of the grave. Eventually through sheer force of habit, the relentless ordinariness of making a living and planning a weekend crowded out much of the panic.

Anna Reardon, the central sufferer in Paul Zindel's And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, is choking on her own mortality. Having cornered the market on pain, she sees through things and people with pitiless accuracy, and she fuses her mockery with a born-again reverence for life that makes her save cockroaches from drowning and refuse to eat meat. An unspecified scandal with a student has forced Anna to quit her job as a high school chemistry teacher. Now sedated into a stupor, she's holed up in the apartment she shares with her sister Catherine. Unwittingly, Anna resembles their now dead mother, who had also loved putting dead-bolt locks between herself and the world. But the trauma goes deeper. Terrified of water, Anna has convinced herself she has residual rabies. She's beset with dreams of doom involving a giant guppy that swallows its young. She's both afraid of and drawn to the gun her mother kept for protection. And now that that life-sucking mother is dead, along with any God she can believe in, Anna can't help feeling that the last barrier between herself and oblivion just got taken away.

What's poignant and hilarious about Zindel's surprisingly piercing play and Cleto Augusto's winning Element Theatre Company staging we owe to the way we're inside Anna's dark night of the soul and glad to be only visiting. Catherine is the play's reality principle. An assistant principal who's had to cover for Anna's eccentricities, Catherine is the one who against her own palate has to cook up endless concoctions of fruits and vegetables to suit her sister (and sneak raw meat into candy boxes, hoping Anna will eat both) and deal with the cackling, prying neighbor lady who wants to view the freak in residence. No wonder she's the Miss Reardon who drinks a little.

The third sister (and the one who inherited the mother's selfishness along with her possessions) is career woman Ceil. Following her credo of every woman for herself, Ceil, after their mother's death, greedily "sucked up" (as Catherine puts it) everything she could grab, the same way she earlier stole away and married Catherine's one chance for love. Now the superintendent of the school district, Ceil, who's clearly embarrassed by Anna's breakdown, wants her sister committed and out of the way. If she thinks of death, it's from the viewpoint of a killer. So much for sisterly solidarity.

Setting off Anna (in every sense) are Fleur and Bob Stein, obnoxious neighbors who barge in on their way to the "theater" (an ice show) to offer unsolicited advice (he thinks all Anna needs is a good, umm, relationship, and she considerately gives Anna a pair of fur-lined gloves that sends the antivivisectionist into conniptions). Acting from a sort of superefficient death wish, the Steins self-destructively start spilling the most humiliating secrets about each other. Having blown her chance to suck up to the superintendent of schools, Fleur resorts to blackmail and exits only seconds before the audience would have pushed her out the door. With nary a pause, Zindel then unleashes an even bigger fight between Catherine and Ceil over who should be their sister's keeper, Catherine or a state mental home (Ceil, it seems, is a major miser). Ceil storms out--and, unlike Chekhov's Three Sisters, Zindel's play ends with just two embracing each other. But Zindel did his work well. We know how hard this hug must feel.

Expressing an eye for detail to match Zindel's pungent dialogue, Augusto's tough and tender staging skimps neither the bitchy exchanges when the bad blood boils over nor the raw pain beneath it all and comically capitalizes on the schism between Anna's agonies and the sitcom that swirls around her. This great gulf is what galvanizes Wendy Goldman Rohm's electric Anna. With a neurasthenic laugh that chills and charms at the same time, an out-of-kilter edginess that's scary to watch, and a cracking voice that could come from a schizoid Penny Marshall, Rohm is a marvel of contagious hysteria; she goes to hell and sends back postcards. If Rohm really had a nervous breakdown onstage, it couldn't look more real.

Though, like all the Elemental sisters, a tad too young, Susan Love plays spinster earth mother Catherine with spunky dignity. But Love shouldn't force the sarcasm--it's not caused by bubbling high spirits but by Catherine's bone-weary exasperation. The black keys to Catherine's whites, Barbara Handlon's Ceil is a grimly efficient yuppie who hasn't quite torn out all evidence she once had such excess baggage as a heart; Handlon works well against a she-wolf stereotype that could have defeated her. Finally, as the predatory Steins, Cynthia Mortland and Russell Freund are a two-person argument for a right to zone out odious neighbors.

Therapeutically enough, the abundant life that Zindel (author of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) prescribes and the Element production delivers is its own partial antidote to death anxiety. At $8 it beats a shrink; do yourself a favor.

Another heaping serving of life comes from those twisted ex-Texas yuksters Imo and Allen, now launching their fourth revue, Tractor Pulls for Jesus, in their usual hangout at Sheffield's. Very much a work in regress, its 20-odd routines come fast and sometimes thin, but the best are pleasantly crazed--like a celebrity benefit ("Inbred Aid") for Appalachian geeks. The benefit aims to bring the arts to the no-necks any which way it can--Allen apes Mayberry's Goober doing Julius Caesar and then jams on a wig to offer a screeching "Hamhock's soliloquy" courtesy of Aunt Bee.

Imo's killer drawl is just right to pillory Tammy, with Allen as slime-faced Jim. In this latest episode, God, who recently revoked Jim's ability to perform miracles, returns him his powers on a trial basis (Jim can only heal children's toys--like giving eyes and a mouth to blind and dumb Mr. Potato Head). Imo/Tammy takes audience requests to sing from her latest gospel album, including, among other groaners, that clap-happy (and vaguely familiar) "He's Got Ho-o-oles in His Hands."

Improvising, Allen, as Shirley MacLaine's guru, raises at the audience's request selected dead: Jesus, Lee Harvey Oswald, and inevitably, Elvis--Elvis strangely had nothing on his mind. The TV parodies include a "slave shopping network" (where you can get indentured servants and white babies at fire-sale prices) and a commercial for Cycle 5 dog food (for dead dogs--you pour worms on your croaked pooch and they eat him). Using deft repetition to build absurdity, Imo is a stitch as a Little League mother who flies off the handle every time her four-eyed son takes things literally--which of course he does over and over.

Not so rib tickling is a running joke where Moses can't remember the last word of God's latest order: "Let my people--what?" Red faced, he stalls by giving the Egyptians one plague after another. (What if Moses kept getting the expression comically wrong--or finally discovered that God couldn't find the mot juste Himself and he better just wing it? Just asking.) Anyway, Tractor Pulls ends rambunctiously with an appropriately show-stopping song that catalogs every nuisance you'll ever endure on the CTA; the audience's shocks of recognition registered like an earthquake.

Though Tractor Pulls suffers from too scattershot a spoofery, at their best Imo and Allen do bring a down-home idiocy to an uptight world. Who else would come up with the story of how, through one little bite, Old Grandma became Old Yeller?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linn M. Ehrlich.

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