COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN
at Mary's Kitchen
Although she's in her late 30s, Mona in Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean still has a teenager's almost religious infatuation with James Dean. She maintains a shrine for him in the local five-and-dime and makes yearly pilgrimages to Marfa, Texas, the town where James Dean's last movie, Giant, was filmed and the place where Mona claims James Dean made love to her one night, leaving her pregnant with his only child.
"I was chosen above all them thousands of others," she gloats. But such glory is fleeting in this world. For a time after little Jimmy Dean was born, "people swarmed into town . . . just to see the son of James Dean." But that's all in the past. In the play's present, 1975, all the signs along the highway have faded--"See the son of James Dean, visit Kessmont's five-and-dime, nine miles ahead"--and no one comes to McCarthy, Texas, anymore.
No one, that is, except a few old members of Mona's high school social club, the Disciples of James Dean, who have gathered to commemorate the 20th anniversary of James Dean's death: Sissy, Stella May, Edna Louise, and Joanne, who seems familiar although no one can quite place her in the old club photo. Joanne turns out to be Mona's old high school buddy Joe, the sensitive young boy who never quite fit into McCarthy's small-minded small-town life.
Joanne has severe doubts about the wisdom of having changed her sex. When asked if she regrets her decision, she answers enigmatically, "Only when I think about it." Happily, playwright Ed Graczyk never tips his hand as to whether Joe was a woman trapped in a man's body or just a sensitive man trapped in mega-macho Texas. What is clear, however, is that Joe once loved Mona, although Mona was too confused, too fixated on James Dean, to return that love.
Like Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean builds toward that moment when the main characters realize who they once were, what they have lost, and who they are now. In traditional tragedy, such recognition would be followed by a tragic fall. But in our post-Freudian world, seeing the truth signifies a therapeutic moment, when every bit of resistance has been overcome and the real work of therapy can begin. When Mona weeps for the now-dead past, we know that for the first time in the play there is some hope for her. She is well on her way to accepting that everyone knows that James Dean was not Jimmy Dean's father, that she passed up the love of her life by denying Joe, that the past is dead and buried, and that her son is old enough to live his own life.
Vanguard Studio's production of Jimmy Dean never comes close to releasing all of the emotional energy packed into this play. This is not, however, for want of trying. Their hearts are in the right place, and the production does have its (sadly fleeting) moments of true inspiration. One is the decision to perform Jimmy Dean in a real diner--Mary's Kitchen, at the corner of Sunnyside and Ravenswood. Although the space may be a bit small to hold an audience comfortably, there is something charming about seeing the show in an authentic environment.
Few in this very green cast, however, seem comfortable in their roles. Nor have they learned how to bring out the story's rich emotional subtext, with the result that few lines are spoken with much conviction.
Karen Gerbig's flat-toned reading of Mona removes every bit of hysteria from her character, turning her from someone absolutely obsessed with the past to a woman whose greatest problem seems to be that she needs a good night's rest. Similarly, Kiya Immergluck makes the Bible-thumping Juanita into a much too sensible, maternal, and together person. You would never know, since she seems to have hardly a bitter bone in her body, that she was trapped in a hellhole life in a godforsaken corner of Texas. And this Juanita doesn't seem the sort to quickly judge Joe as "unnatural" or agree with the rest of the town bigots that he ought to be forced to leave.
On the plus side, Jackie Stevens brings just the right amount of self-satisfaction and adolescent denial of reality to her portrayal of the teenage Mona. Natasha Forgione also deserves praise for the gutsy, cowgirl sensuality she gives Mona's bad-girl friend, Sissy.
The most charismatic actor in this production may well be Emanuel Corti as Joe. With his smoky blue eyes and thin, boyish physique, he could easily pass for James Dean; certainly he seems just the kind of boy Mona could fall for if she weren't so hung up on a movie star.
Tim Moore as Joanne is disappointing. Not that there is anything wrong with Moore's drag act, quite the contrary. It's just that you can always tell, despite the wig and earrings and makeup, that he's a man. As soon as he made his entrance, we all knew immediately what it would take the play half an act to reveal: surprise, Joanne is really Joe.
Unfortunately, such disappointment is par for the course in this heavy-handed but subtext-free production.