Southern Discomfort

The ability to select and produce a satisfying entertainment largely depends on knowing when a specific form is past its prime and when it's gaining popularity. By presenting Sandra Deer's dull and meandering So Long on Lonely Street the New River Repertory seems ignorant of the fact that knockoff southern Gothics are obsolete.

This particular piece is truly a tedious anachronism, a weak attempt at a genre made popular by better writers, such as Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman. Although Deer strains to inject some comedy and a social conscience into a contrived and implausible plot, the play concerns little more than a dysfunctional family who gather for the reading of a will.

In this case three cousins and their black nanny meet in late Aunt Pearl's shabby Georgia home to pay their respects and hammer out the terms of their inheritance; Pearl has left her house and its surrounding 25 acres of land. The nobler cousins -- Ray Brown and his sister, Ruth -- are more interested in seeing each other and visiting the old homestead than they are in sinking their claws into the house and land. Ray lives in New York City where he has become a soap-opera star, while Ruth lives in nearby Athens and writes morbid novels. They represent the new South: hip, open-minded, and clearly ashamed of their ancestors' past bigotries and injustices.

On the other hand evil cousin King Vaughnam and his shrewish, pregnant wife, Clarise, are classic Dixie stereotypes. King wants to buy out his cousins and build a "Christian shopping center" on Aunt Pearl's land. He's calculating, selfish, and judgmental; his wife is nasty and stupid. However, there's a major wrinkle in King's plans. Aunt Pearl's lifelong companion, half-sister, maid, and whipping girl, the half-black Annabell Lee, stands to inherit everything, much to the chagrin of King and Clarise, who are greedy and racist. Annabell herself is a bitter woman, tired of being patronized by a family to which she doesn't really belong. In an effort to gain some dignity she has created another personality, Sharon Rose, from the biblical reference "the Rose of Sharon." As Sharon, Anna becomes kind and soft-spoken, believing herself to be the only daughter of a Hebrew monarch. Naturally King uses this pathetic psychosis as the perfect reason to institutionalize Anna and grab the inheritance.

I won't go on any more, except to say that the tale takes a turn for the twisted and yet still remains boring. In the course of the slow-moving action everyone discusses and argues about family patriarch Big Jack (Pearl and Anna's father); his wife, Beulah; everyone's sexual affairs; Pearl's mean personality; and lots more trivia the audience doesn't need to know about. By the end of the first act I totally had lost interest in the Vaughnam clan, and could not imagine why the New River Rep -- known for cutting-edge material such as Zombie Prom -- bothered to read through this entire script, let alone produce it.

Director Primo Tosi inflicts even more damage to an already weak foundation. He moves the players around with such a heavy and obvious hand you expect to see chalk marks on the stage where they're supposed to stand. On the whole the acting is just as clumsy. Jeff Michael plays Ray at such a low energy level that he fades into the background. As Ruth, Janet Erlick is harsh and defensive without any obvious reason. In fact she seems to have no idea what she's supposed to be feeling; sometimes she smiles at tragic moments as though she isn't listening to the dialogue. Gracia Jean Gordon's Annabell is forced and without focus; Gordon often mutters her lines upstage, where she can't be heard by anyone.

However, as Clarise, Molly Hale takes the pecan pie for missing the mark completely, shrieking, whining, and hollering at earsplitting decibels. I'm only guessing that Deer fashioned Clarise's obnoxious personality and Annabell's mental imbalance to add a touch of dark comedy, but without precise timing from the cast, any type of humor falls flat. The innate dreariness of this play only worsens the effect. Hale also suffers at the hands of costume designer Andrew La Vault; he pads her body in such an awkward way that she looks pregnant from the collarbone down and riddled with small tumors.

The only actor who manages to convey some realism is Duncan Young as King, and yet his 40-ish age is a casting problem, as he's supposed to be the youngest cousin and both Erlick and Michael look no more than 30. Young at least sounds authentically Southern, and to his credit he refrains from milking King's sleaziness. Unfortunately, he's so much better than the others that I found myself rooting for the villain. I also thought that Annabell Lee, as played by Gordon anyway, was easily senile enough to be committed, possibly along with Tosi and the rest of New River Repertory for permitting such stiff, fake performances and producing such a dated, pointless play.

Stage Notes
Although I still think Paul Rudnick is a film hack and sit-com writer who gets too much credit for his play Jeffrey simply because it's about AIDS and gay romance, ACME Acting Company's production of the show works better in its new home at Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre in Wilton Manors than it did in its recent, successful run at the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road. The new venue is more intimate, and the cast has calmed down considerably. On opening night at the Colony almost every actor offered up hysterical and sometimes offensive renditions of male homosexuality. At the Off-Broadway Theatre far more complex performances have replaced two-dimensional efforts. Theatergoers who enjoy politically correct romances should love this X-rated, funny tearjerker.


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