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Send in the Hicks


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Victory Gardens Theater

I'm sure Beth Henley's a very nice person, but I do wish she'd get out of my face. It was Henley who wrote Crimes of the Heart, a comedy about three deeply disturbed daughters of the deep south and their rather pixilated--if sometimes murderous--approach to the world. Henley won a Pulitzer Prize for Crimes, saw it turned into a movie, and continues to collect royalties on its seemingly endless reappearances in community and collegiate productions.

Naturally enough, Henley's success has set off a minor boom in comedies about sweet, cracked southern ladies. Knockoffs of the Henley heroine--which, in turn, knocks off (and stomps on) the Tennessee Williams heroine--have been showing up as far north as Halsted and Diversey. Like any knockoff, these second-generation basket cases are even cruder and sillier than their mama. Where the Henley heroine comes across as an awkward, desperate, emotionally battered womanchild, the knockoff's simply dumb, needy, and infantile.

A perfect case in point would be Lynn Siefert's unbelievably offensive Little Egypt, which premiered at Steppenwolf last fall. Set in downstate Illinois, Siefert's play substitutes hicks for southerners and burlesque for the skewed, sad humor in Crimes of the Heart. Most important, Siefert expresses nothing like the love Henley obviously harbors for her wounded-bird women. Far from it. Though she goes for tender effects now and then, Siefert always fails to achieve them because she so clearly loathes her characters--sluts, frumps, and yahoos all.

Darrah Cloud and her director, Sandy Shinner, are nowhere near as hostile as Siefert. And they'd very likely be a little miffed to find their work equated with Crimes of the Heart. Cloud's The Stick Wife, after all, isn't a sentimental comedy about the foibles and felonies of some whacked-out southern belles. It's supposed to be a very serious examination of bigotry, an attempt to find out, as Cloud says in her program notes, "where in the soul racism comes from." Based on an actual event--a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four young black girls were killed--The Stick Wife is meant to depict the culture of hate, and how that culture undermines the lives even of those who seem most at home in it.

But, hostile or not, Cloud and Shinner are ultimately just as condescending as Siefert. Serious or not, they're just as willing to turn their characters into cute wackos. For all the sympathy and high purpose Cloud expresses toward them in her program notes, the three southern ladies of Stick Wife end up playing out a degraded version of the old Henley whimsy. They're dumb, needy, and infantile.

Or, more specifically--Betty, Jessie, and Marguerite. The play's set in Jessie's Birmingham backyard, where she does her Sisyphean laundry and tries to pry a word or two out of her spectacularly taciturn husband, Ed. But Ed's not talking--he's not even staying for breakfast. So Jessie alternates between a haunted fantasy life and the company of two friends who make granny Clampett look like Emily Post.

Are these women tasteless? Marguerite dips her doughnut in Coca-Cola. Are they tough? Betty chugs whiskey right out of the bottle. Are they childish? Mad at each other, Jessie and Marguerite get into a spitting fight.

Their men are all of the above--only meaner, better organized, and more secretive. They're members of the local Klan chapter, an organization they call the "Club." Or, perhaps, the "Klub." The church bombing was a club activity.

The menfolk keep such activities to themselves, less for security reasons, apparently, than because they enjoy the mystique of the illicit: it pleases them, dull-witted schlumps that they are, to see themselves as enigmatic figures leading mysterious and romantic double lives. Certainly, their wives don't know. The men can't very well afford to introduce their secret selves to the most real people in their lives.

Still, much as they'd like to, the wives can't really miss the signs. And when those signs point to Ed's involvement in the fatal church bombing, Jessie finally feels compelled to declare her independence.

But strangely enough, it's this heroic resolve on Jessie's part that inspires the most egregious Henleyoid wacko-whimsical cuteness in Cloud and Shinner. Though Jessie's struggle pits her against some fairly ruthless and violent people, it's framed as farce. The Klansmen are Laurel and Hardy in white sheets; the women, Gracie Allen in muumuus.

And the show, Pee Wee's Playhouse with guns. Cloud and Shinner allow Jessie, Ed, and the others no ethical grounding; no psychological complexity; no ideology, however twisted; no ambivalence, no brains at all. They're just poor white trash, good for a laugh. Which, by an odd coincidence, is precisely what Siefert's characters are.

This wouldn't be so bad if it were part of Cloud's intent. I could see The Stick Wife as a--you should excuse the expression--black comedy. A demented romance, in which everybody's worst punishment is getting the mate they deserve. A no-win Lysistrata, where the women are as sick and sad as the men. But that's clearly not what Cloud's after here. Signs throughout the production suggest that she wants us to sympathize with the women and to take the male threat seriously.

It's just that we can't. Cloud's a young playwright with lots of talent but very little control of her voice. Which isn't really her voice, anyway, but a hodgepodge of voices she's heard here and there. Including Henley's. When Cloud finds a voice--that is, when she finds her own most efficient way of telling the truth--we'll believe it. Like Jessie, Cloud's got to declare her independence.

Meanwhile, there's a great deal wrong with this show, even aside from the voice problem. There are dangling issues--like the mysterious business of Ed and Jessie's kids, whose disappearance is significant but unexplored. There are nonsensical actions--like a rape scene that's psychologically incoherent. There are inaccuracies--like Jessie's getting the news of John Kennedy's assassination on the morning of November 22, 1963, when he wasn't shot until 12:30 PM that day.

Worst of all, there's a massive waste of marvelous talent. Especially among the women. Of course, given her extensive lemonade-making experience, it's amazing but not surprising to see Laurel Cronin squeeze a full and thoroughly affecting character out of the lemon that is Betty. Doing Cloud a service against Cloud's will, Cronin makes Betty true.

Amy Morton brings considerable comic skill to the role of Marguerite, and actually does succeed in making her funny. But, almost necessarily, nothing more. Likewise, Deanna Dunagan offers a wonderfully free, terrifically inventive performance as Jessie. But she ends up--again, necessarily--flailing around, just trying to fend off Cloud's wacko absurdities.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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