New play about Texas values last in writer’s trilogy

Life has come full circle for Del Shores, the Texan actor-cum-writer who wrote a hit play six years ago and ended up reeling in Hollywood offers that most only dream about.

Shores, the author of “Cheatin’ ” and the mini-megahit “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got the Will?”– the latter of which ran for 21 months in a Los Angeles Equity Waiver house and has gone on to productions nationwide — is the playwright whose Southern-edged comedic skew propelled him to write and exec produce a film version of “Daddy’s Dyin’ ” (MGM/UA, 1990).

From there, he was picked up by Warner Bros. to write and develop situation comedies and is currently a producer/writer with an overall development deal at 20th Century Fox.

Now, five years after the close of the L.A. stage version of “Daddy’s Dyin’,” Shores is poised to return to the boards to mount the third play in that Texas trilogy, “Daughters of the Lone Star State.” The play, to be directed by Ron Link (“Stand Up Tragedy,””Bouncers”), opens May 20 at the Zephyr Theatre.

“You know, I actually finished this play a long time ago, and there were several times when I came close to putting it up,” Shores said recently, sitting in his spacious office on the Fox lot. “But I always had too much going on to do it.”

In addition to developing a string of pilots, he and his wife, Kelly, had two daughters. His youngest was born last October.

Yet ironically, as his other “Daughters” sat gathering dust, Shores believes the play’s subject matter — racism — became even more timely.

“You know, there was a point when I had worried that I had created characters in this play that no longer existed,” Shores said. “I was worried that the racism they exhibited wasn’t really happening any more.”

A trip back home to Abilene, Texas, not only convinced him that was he on the right track, but that the deep roots of racism in the South were even more entrenched in 1993.

“All you have to do is talk to people down there,” he said. “It’s really a way of life, people are raised that way. It’s almost like everyone’s a victim of their own circumstances.”

In “Daughters of the Lone Star State,” Shores picks up again with one of his central characters from “Daddy’s Dyin’,” the acerbic family matriarch Mama Wheelis. Molly McClure, who starred in both the original stage version and the film, will again perform in the role.

The story is set in the same small Texas town, Christmas of 1992, and is centered around a flock of old Southern biddies in Wheelis’ womens’ club who are forced to confront their own racial and class double standards when two outsiders attempt to join.

“You know, there’s a real white/black dynamic in this play, but the play is not just about prejudice,” Shores said. “It also has to do with the socio-economic divisions of people. This womens’ club’s motto, after all, is the ‘privileged helping the underprivileged.’ So in order to even be a member, you have to be privileged.”

Given the dynamics of this story, it’s not surprising that this play should be considered an anomaly on the small theater scene. Far from living up to the usual cost-conscious two-character story, it has an 11-member all-woman cast, nine of whom are over the age of 55.

Once again, in Hollywood’s year of the woman, Shores’ project has come of age.

“I knew from the start that this would be an expensive play to do if it is ever staged at an Equity theater,” Shores conceded. “But I believe there’s a shortage of roles for women in this age group and there are so many great actresses out there.” In continually returning to his roots to write about these catty and sometimes abrasive Southerners, Shores says that he has one weakness. He always allows one character to “find themselves,” thus casting off the oppressive years of familial intolerance. In “Daddy’s Dyin’,” it was the sweet-natured and emotionally abused Marlene.

“I think it is my fantasy for Southern women … to not be stuck in this kind of social mire,” he said. “My aunt was the inspiration for Marlene, but unlike Marlene, she is still stuck.”

And in writing a comedy that directly addresses racism in the South, Shores admits that he’s also exercising his own personal demons.

“You know, we took our three-year-old daughter to a toy store to let her pick out a doll, and out of all of the dolls, she picked a black doll,” Shores said. “You know, that’s something that I wouldn’t have done as a child, but I was thrilled. It made me think that maybe we’re doing something right as parents.”

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