Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Press For Small Town

Theater Review
Putting the “fun” in “dysfunctional family”
By Richard Wallace
Special to The Seattle Times

Playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard is a lot like you and me. She gets up in the morning, finds some beverage to wake up her brain cells and starts her day in front of her computer.

Here is where our similarity probably ends. Because when you dive into your e-mail, Blanchard dives into her subconscious, and what she brings back are images of twisted Americana that would make David Lynch smile.

Small wonder then that Annex Theatre, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, has chosen to produce a world premiere of her play “Small Town” as part of its “Oyster Series.”

Directed with fiendish charm by Bret Fetzer, Blanchard’s domestic comedy is a country-fried horror show.

Think of a worst-case scenario for a family unit. It’s got to be the Ledbetters.

Blanchard starts with clichés that she turns into cartoons.
Then she gives her cartoon characters enough interesting quirks to turn them into real people. It’s the “Simpsons” technique, and it works really well with the biggest cliché of them all: serial killer.

Ruby (Teri Lazzara) is the mom. Ruby wears a beehive hairdo the height of a parking garage. She smokes through a hole in her throat and rarely gets out of her bathrobe.

Her one-eyed daughter Lucinda (Betsy Morris) hangs out perpetually on the couch, half the time dreaming of her former glory as a two-county “pork queen,” the other half wondering if her faithless, loser boyfriend Bud (Daniel Christensen) is worth the trouble.

Ruby’s son, Stu Lionel (Aaron LaPlante), rounds out the family trio. Stu Lionel, a giant boy who aged into a man, spends all of his time in the family basement doing — well — we’re not sure.

With the arrival of Sheriff Dwayne (Chris Dietz), Stu Lionel’s underground activities take on sinister implications. Dwayne tells the Ledbetters that a number of mailmen are missing — 17 so far — a fact that doesn’t seem to surprise Stu Lionel one bit.

The ensemble enjoys every gruesome minute.

Every actor gets funny, outrageous stuff to say and do. Several even get to sing.

The pearl in this delirious swine of a show is Morris, who gives child-woman Lucinda a kind of big-hearted weirdness that is as winning as it is demented.

Finally, though it is early in the year, Bret Fetzer’s witty set design is a 2007 front-runner in the make-something-really-great-out-of-nothing category.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

Small Town Review

Now, don’t let the chicken- and cat-rape, possum-gutting, or deep-frying a sparrow put you off. (Or the hamster, which we don’t have time to get into.) There’s a lot of tenderness to playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard’s depiction of small-town life. And if former Pork Queen Lucinda is one-eyed, the Sheriff’s plastic cranium doesn’t seal that well, bemulleted Bud has testicular size-and-quantity issues, and Lucinda’s brother Stu Lionel has a too-lively fascination with dead things (and how they get that way), that just says something vital about what it means to be human — any rich, vibrant tapestry has got to have a few loose ends.

It’s hard to imagine getting more snorted laughs and eyes-wide guffaws out of $10, and that’s a fact. Now, you may protest that the white trash thing has been done. You may say, “37 vivisected mailmen? Come on!” Hey, art is a mirror to life. You don’t even have to leave this site to find worse and even worser examples that all is not right on American continent.

What Small Town has got in spades is authenticity, and we’re not just referring to Bud’s ballsy a capella country version of the Scorps power ballad “No One Like You” (complete with porn ass-slapping for the “I imagine the thing’s we’ll do” line), or the ensemble’s bluegrassy take on Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” We’d never have guessed from seeing Kelleen in her daily Goth attire that she’s glimpsed the soul of the residents of American hamlets and hollers, and if the plot can make you feel like you’ve suffered some moonshine-induced blackouts, screw it, there’s a case to be made that this is all true to the messy, untied-up, one-damn-thing-after-another lives of small town folks. Last night the place was sold out, and the applause went on for a long time.

Lerner & Loewe, suck down an empty jelly jar of hooch and meet Blanchard & Fetzer. We’d like to thank director Bret Fetzer for the concern extended to every facet of these grubby little people, the John-Waters-like compassion and understanding. We’ve seen some Annex work over the years where the cast might have wanted anonymity — not here. We were in awe of Betsy Morris as Lucinda. Not everyone can pull off that drawled, trailing-off conversational add-on, developed after years of being unlistened to. And tomcatty Bud (Daniel Christensen), nice-boy Sheriff Dwayne (Chris Dietz), hairtriggered Ruby (Teri Lazzara), and “slow” Stu Lionel (Aaron LaPlante) each manage to truly inhabit a small-town life: the everybody-knows-each-other’s-business approach and deference due to unusual hobbies and life pursuits.

The tricky part is finding the actual theater. We thought it was downstairs at CHAC, and it sort of is, but you go through this door just to the left as you enter, and down a hallway, then take another left and climb some stairs, go through another door, and you’re in the Annex lobby.

Small Town
Annex Theatre @ CHAC
7:30pm, Tues. & Weds., through February 21
Tickets: $10/$7 students/seniors

Photo by Jennifer Cabarrus. Pictured, Daniel Christensen and Betsy Morris.

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