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The guy blocking the aisle as Saturday’s intermission crowd tried to return to Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander was what you might call an impromptu theater critic. He stood his ground at Signature Theater’s final preview as puzzled patrons craned their necks to see if there was some obstruction beyond him. He stared blankly as they realized that he was the problem. And then he let them pass with a grin and a quip.
“Just trying,” he said cheerily, “to create a little dramatic tension.”
He had a point. Preston Jones’ amiably sad comedy about life in Bradleyville, Texas, is bittersweetly observant, but less than incident-packed. The middle play of the author’s celebrated “Texas Trilogy,” it chronicles the maturation of a high-school cheerleader by visiting her on three lackadaisical afternoons at 10-year intervals. As the lights come up, 18-year-old Lu Ann Hampton (Bonnie Webster) is laughing with her basketball-playing boyfriend Billy Bob (Tom O’Connor) over a pep rally stunt that’s left him with a lime-green crewcut. “Mah eyes liked to jumped plumb outta mah head,” she burbles, giving a pretty fair description of the visage she’ll wear a half-hour later when her brother Skip (Michael Garr) introduces her to an Army buddy named Dale Laverty (Mark Rhea). Dale barely registers as a dull normal, but to Lu Ann, who’s in a headlong rush to be somewhere, anywhere, everywhere but Bradleyville, he’s a truck-driving, soon-to-be-trailer-owning ticket out of town.
Twenty years later, Lu Ann has added both Dale’s last name and that of highway inspector Corky Oberlander (Steven W. Shriner) to her mailbox, but her headlong rush has slowed to a crawl. At 38, having outlasted two husbands, raised a daughter, and purchased that trailer (which never took her farther than the next town), she’s become Bradleyville’s official booster, handing out coupons from her “Howdy Wagon.” The town she thought wouldn’t be able to hold her no longer even needs to try.
At its D.C. premiere 19 years ago, Jones’ trilogy was greeted as a luminous evocation of small-town life. With a cast headed by Dianne Ladd (as Lu Ann), Fred Gwynne (as the title character in The Oldest Living Graduate), and Henderson Forsythe (as presiding officer at The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia), it played for 10 SRO weeks at the Kennedy Center and was so highly regarded locally that its producers brought it back for another run two months later. A subsequent Broadway engagement fell victim to the Manhattan critics in late 1976, but that only enhanced the trilogy’s reputation as populist entertainment, and it became a staple on the regional theater circuit. Jones, who died a few years later without completing any other significant work, was widely hailed as heir-apparent to the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.
Having been among those who argued that Jones belonged on that pedestal (the phrase, “arguably the most exciting playwright to come down the pike since Tennessee Williams” haunts me from my clip file), I confess I’m no longer able to recall exactly why. Jones succeeds in evoking the drabness of a Texas backwater in Lu Ann—as I recall, by the end of three evenings with his characters, I felt I knew the sentiments of every one of Bradleyville’s 6,000 inhabitants—but his portrait of the gradual settling into middle age of his leading character no longer strikes me as much more than observant. At Signature Theater, as Webster’s Lu Ann goes from youthful pigtails to a Dolly Parton-ish cascade of bleached curls to the mousy ‘do of a tired rural matron, what’s striking is how familiar each step of her journey seems. Such stories—once chronicled in farm movies starring Jessica Lange—have since become the province of television.
That was less true of Knights of the White Magnolia, which director Donald R. Martin staged for Signature as a comic romp three years ago. There he had edgier subject matter—the Knights were a stand-in for the Ku Klux Klan—so he didn’t have to lay on the nostalgia quite so heavily. Lu Ann is comparatively atmospheric, which means that David Hale’s sound design is filled with chirping crickets and the dialogue is filled with observations on the order of, “the Lord’s got lots of time to waste; it’s us the time runs down on.” To his credit, Martin has instructed the cast to make such homespun wisdom sound conversational, rather than trying to elevate it to the point where it might be described as prairie poetry.
The cast is generally adept, and sometimes more than that. Webster’s Lu Ann moves smoothly from youthful insouciance through brassy bravado to wistful resignation. It isn’t a terribly subtle performance, but once she gets past the gawky teen-age phase, it’s an unmannered, efficient one. Decent support is provided by Garr, whose alcoholic Skip is more subdued and consequently more affecting than he was in Knights; by Shriner, who is credibly down-to-earth as Lu Ann’s second husband; and by Melissa Chambers and Danielle Davy as, respectively, Lu Ann’s chatty mother and rebellious daughter. The rest of the cast members range from competent to cartoonish in direct proportion to how hard they work for laughs.
Lou Stancari’s weatherbeaten, almost monochromatic setting features a chair and couch so perfectly in sync with their surroundings that they initially appear to have been hewn directly from the clay floor. Later, slipcovered in paler fabric, they’re no less drab, seeming simply to have accumulated two decades’ worth of dust. John Burchett’s dry lighting and Heidi Alexander’s understated costumes further the sense that Bradleyville is a spot from which any sensible resident would yearn to escape.
All of which is in support of a play that somehow seems more remote than it did a generation ago. What was salient then about Lu Ann’s gradually accumulating disappointment was that it had a certain universality. Today, with the nation’s disaffected populace dividing into armed camps, patrons will be forgiven for being less automatically empathetic—wondering, perhaps, where Lu Ann would stand on the Contract With America before identifying with her pain.