I’m guessing the African Continuum Theatre folks know that Pecan Tan, Tanya Barfield’s common-sensically comic portrait of a marriage, is pretty much a sitcom. Why else the medley of TV themes—from Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son—that greets the audience as it meanders into the H Street Playhouse? Why else Tracie Duncan’s whimsical gem of a Saturday-morning-cartoon set, with the furniture and the appliances that pop out of the walls?
There are moments when it plays like a pretty good sitcom. Barfield’s comic lead is one Darrell Jerome Wilson, a South Carolina no-account so hapless he once stopped to get directions from the Popeyes clerk he’d just finished robbing. His exasperated foil is Thelma, the Oprah-watching, self-actualizing wife who’s been waiting 25 years for him to shape up and act right. They live in her late daddy’s house with her vodka-swilling mama, and when the fun begins, Darrell’s just returned from a month of soul-searching, he claims, looking for his inner child. Don’t think Thelma doesn’t have a few choice words to say about that.
The escalating spiral of a spat Barfield writes for the two of them starts the evening on an auspiciously convulsive note—turns out “there’s this girl” who inspired Darrell’s absence—and more than one exchange had the opening-night audience howling. (“Something happen at work?” Darrell asks, apparently unaware of the carnage he’s about to cause. “’Cause today’s the 19th, and you acting like it’s the 28th or something.”)
Once his belongings have stopped flying out of the upstairs window, though, and before Thelma is able to figure out how the gun actually works, Darrell manages to explain that the girl isn’t a mistress but a long-lost daughter he never knew. Her PI has tracked Darrell down, asking about a reunion, and the prospect of fatherhood is what’s had him mired in such unaccustomed self-examination. “The idea of this daughter, it make me so happy, the happiest moment I could imagine,” he says, after the shouting has stopped. “And I wanna share it with you, Thelma, ’cause that’s what we are, a family, and that means me being the husband you always wanted.”
If it seems unlikely that Randall Shepperd’s entertainingly flaky protagonist will be able to remake himself as the “magazine man” of Thelma’s expectations, well, that’s part of Barfield’s point. That daughter turns out to be not quite the redeeming force everybody imagines—she’s a butch little thing in combat boots, and oh-by-the-way she’s half-white—and it turns out the squabbling Wilson clan isn’t quite what the young lady expected, either. Tiffany Fillmore’s orphaned waif of an Olga came South looking for “big, extended, all happy and warm”—or, in the understandably jaundiced paraphrase of Thelma’s mom, “a going-lucky, slap-happy black family” to hook up with. “We don’t do no singing and dancing down here,” they tell her, and hilarity, as everyone settles ruffled feathers and learns to accept the others for who they are, ensues.
Tries to, anyway: Barfield’s second act feels a little thinner than her first (and the first isn’t exactly hefty). Farcical formula and broad performances mean that the characters, as Thelma tells her family in a moment of exasperation, can seem like “stereotypes of yourselves.” And the jokes can feel repetitive: As Thelma’s Mrs. Malaprop–meets–Mammy mama, Willette Thompson makes at least one too many decreasingly funny mistakes with the offbeat name of Olga’s investigator, Miss Wildflower. For every two lines that land, there’s another that just lies there. Still, Marc R. Payne makes Thelma’s antic, astrology-fixated brother, Jimmy, an amusingly scattered voice of reason when everybody’s yelling about dykes and crackers and whatnot, and Shepperd and Lynn Chavis create a pretty consistently hilarious inversion of the well-grounded, contentedly domestic twosome they played in ACTCo’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone last year. And Jennifer Nelson’s sometimes hectic direction keeps the cast moving and the energy flowing full farce, though the busyness can’t quite fill all the gaps.
If Barfield doesn’t have anything terribly profound to say about how families go along and get along, she’s got a deft enough touch for capturing the ways we all irritate the life out of each other, and there’s a kind of humanity in the amusement with which she showcases them. And she brings the play nicely home with a two-word one-liner that ties up a thread from that first blazing row, so things end on a nicely snappy note.
On opening night, the players hadn’t quite whetted their timing to that effortlessly keen edge that can send an otherwise ordinary comedy over the top, but Pecan Tan may get there when they do—in which case it’ll be almost the Very Special Episode Barfield seems to want.CP