LU ANN HAMPTON LAVERTY OBERLANDER
THE LAST MEETING OF THE KNIGHTS OF THE WHITE MAGNOLIA
THE OLDEST LIVING GRADUATE
Raven Theatre Company
As someone who has done time in a small town, I can testify that living in one induces a peculiar form of time distortion. Although life moves slowly day by day, time seems to zip by. People tend to talk in terms of decades, not years. The farm down the road remains the Miller farm 30 years after the Millers sold it, and newcomers aren't considered true residents until they've been there for a generation or two.
But the sameness of the days, which is what makes time seem to pass so quickly, can also make it seem that life is slipping away. So some young people flee as soon as they graduate from high school, while others stay behind and settle into a safe, predictable routine.
There are always some young people, however, who get trapped in the middle--they want to escape but never manage it. These people, out of sync with their environment, try to live faster than a small town allows, as though by approaching the speed of light they can pack more living into each moment. But inevitably, small-town life keeps slowing them down.
That's what happens to the title character of Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, which Raven Theatre is running in repertory with The Oldest Living Graduate and The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, the other two plays of Preston Jones's A Texas Trilogy. This play, the best of the three, isn't exactly "about" time. In fact, it isn't really "about" anything--it merely portrays a few unremarkable lives being lived in Bradleyville, Texas, between 1953 and 1973.
But in Lu Ann, Jones does incidentally transform small-town life into a quiet meditation on time--how it changes us, and how we defy it by remaining stubbornly the same, despite the opportunities we have to grow and to blossom. Most of the dramatic tension comes from Lu Ann herself, who keeps trying to pull away from Bradleyville's life-sapping lethargy. During the course of the play, she ages 20 years. In the first scene, she is a giggly high school girl badgering her boyfriend, Billy Bob Wortman, to ask his father for the "step-down" Hudson Hornet. She wants to go to the senior picnic in style. By the last scene, she has been married twice--to Dale Laverty and Corky Oberlander--and is taking care of her mother, who has been incapacitated by a stroke. In between, she gets a degree in "beauty culture," goes to work at Maud Lowery's Bon-Ton Beauty Salon, raises a daughter from her first marriage, and spends a lot of time drinking beer in Red Grover's bar.
Jones swiftly divulges all this in three short acts. (Even with two intermissions, the play lasts barely 90 minutes.) And if those three short scenes haven't made 20 years seem to fly by fast enough, Jones closes the play with a reappearance by Billy Bob Wortman, who has grown up to become a preacher so soft-spoken and sanctimonious that Lu Ann doesn't even recognize him when she answers the door.
But to claim that Jones has developed time--or any other theme--in this play gives him too much credit. This is above all a play of moments--simple, homely, inconsequential moments--and the play succeeds to the extent that the actors make those moments interesting. Weak performances subvert Raven Theatre's productions of the other two plays in the trilogy, but with JoAnn Montemurro in the title role, Lu Ann succeeds.
In 1982, Montemurro played the same part in a tiny storefront theater; that production was so well received that it led to Raven Theatre's creation. In this production she demonstrates that her performance six years ago, which earned her a Jeff citation, was no fluke. She creates a vibrant, responsive personality that remains remarkably consistent over 20 years. As a high school cheerleader, for example, Montemurro squeals with childish excitement over Billy Bob's participation in a class prank, but a moment later she uses her eyes to suggest Lu Ann's shrewd, calculating side--a survival instinct that will become more apparent in adulthood. Since the dialogue Jones provides is mundane, Montemurro must define her character largely through facial expression, posture, and other nuances, giving Lu A nn an aura of authenticity and significance that the playwright couldn't manage on his own.
In the other two plays, the actors don't anchor the action in the way Montemurro does; they drift aimlessly from scene to scene. The main character in both plays is Colonel J.C. Kinkaid, a feisty World War I veteran who is rapidly sinking into senility. The role is played by Charles Thomas, a skillful actor who gives a strong performance--but that's the problem. It's too strong. Thomas gives no hint that the colonel is failing. Although the dialogue indicates that the colonel is rapidly retreating into his war memories, Thomas just blusters forward, his character still hale and hearty and hell-bent on meddling in everyone's business.
In The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, Kinkaid, who can no longer walk, is carried up the stairs to the meeting hollering and complaining, his primary form of communication when he's not recounting his war stories. It is 1962, and the seven remaining members of this once-flourishing club, formed at the turn of the century by a disgruntled Ku Klux Klan member, are about to initiate a new member--the first in many years. But the men spend most of their time bumbling and arguing. Should they open the whiskey now or after the meeting? Where is the book containing the initiation ceremony? And what's preventing Milo's pickup truck from starting, the carburetor or the fuel line?
Meanwhile the colonel's failing mind keeps returning to memories of the Great War, when he served with General "Black Jack" Pershing and fought in the trenches. Finally he starts hallucinating about a German artillery attack that blew several of his friends to pieces. His breakdown heralds his death, as well as the club's demise.
The Oldest Living Graduate takes place in the den of Kinkaid's house during the four days surrounding the events of The Last Meeting. His son Floyd (Ray Toler) is working on a real estate development that would put houses on a parcel of his father's property. The colonel doesn't want to sell the land, however. As a boy, he watched a religious community flourish and then fail on that spot, and now he likes to revisit the site and daydream about the beautiful daughter of one of the settlers. Kinkaid's conflict with his son intensifies when the military school that the colonel attended wants to honor him as its oldest living graduate. Floyd jumps at the opportunity: the ceremony will allow him to rub shoulders with senators and other dignitaries who might be able to help him with the planned housing development. The irascible colonel, however, scuttles the plan.
Like LuAnn, both plays are collections of moments, but the moments are not as intrinsically interesting, and the performers don't give them the depth and texture that Montemurro brings to her role. Jack Cohen, well cast as the crude, garrulous owner of Red's tavern, comes close to creating a full-bodied character, and Toler projects the desperation of a son squirming under the thumb of a hypercritical father. But in general, when conflict is meant to build in a scene, the actors merely turn up the volume--they don't focus on the tensions within their characters. Like inexperienced hikers, they reflexively start shouting when they get lost.
Seeing the three plays together deepens some of the characters Jones has sketched. Lu Ann's brother Skip, for example, who starts out as a hard-drinking good ol' boy in Lu Ann and 20 years later has disintegrated into the town drunk, is shown midway in The Last Meeting--he's an alcoholic who can still hold down his job as a mechanic. And the White Knights he mentions with reverence in Lu Ann turn out to be the clowns depicted in The Last Meeting.
But despite their connections and the additional information they offer, The Last Meeting and Graduate do little to deepen the poignance of Lu Ann. What they do is to make time move very slowly indeed.