Ed Graczyk's play about a group of small-town James Dean worshippers had a short New York run in 1980, then became a Robert Altman film in 1982. Both versions had to fight contrived material. The Court Theater's production still wrestles with awkward story construction but gains depth through Richard Hochberg's restrained direction.
Ed Graczyk’s play about a group of small-town James Dean worshippers had a short New York run in 1980, then became a Robert Altman film in 1982. Both versions had to fight contrived, overwrought material. The Court Theater’s production still wrestles with awkward story construction and plot twists but gains depth through Richard Hochberg’s restrained direction. Most impressively, Park Overall (TV’s “Empty Nest,” Broadway’s “Biloxi Blues”) offers a portrayal of such unmannered simplicity and strength that the central character evokes memories of Laura Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”Overall plays Mona, mother of a son she claims was fathered by James Dean during the period she was an extra in 1956’s “Giant.” Her defeated body language and washed-out complexion suggest a woman clinging to pathetic illusions, which she reinforces by holding up a tiny piece of Reata — the house facade used in the film — and lovingly putting it next to Dean’s picture. Designer Burris Jackes places Overall in the convincingly tacky Texas Five-and-Dime, featuring a broken-down ceiling fan, strings of Christmas lights, one picture of Jesus and an opposite wall deluged with Dean photographs. It’s clear that Christ runs a distant second in the eyes of six women meeting for a 1980 “Disciples of James Dean” 25th anniversary reunion to celebrate his memory. The overlong opening sequence presents Mona and Five-and-Dime proprietor Juanita (Linde Gibb), who has canonized her late husband, Sidney, and uses religion as a weapon to condemn a gay former worker, Joe (Joel Veach). More flamboyant and amusing is Sissy (Alana Stewart), who proudly flaunts her fake boobs (“As the good Lord says, if you’ve got ’em, bounce ’em”). Also on hand are Stella Mae (Holly Jeanne), who delivers critical zingers that should be funnier, and Edna Louise (Deborah Offner), a dimwitted, pregnant wife and the main butt of Stella’s barbs. “Jimmy Dean” is initially too talky, until Joanne (Rebecca Holden), an elegant stranger wearing pearls, white pantsuit and straw hat, drops in and demonstrates a bewilderingly thorough knowledge of the other women’s lives. It turns out she’s ex-worker Joe with a sex change, and her self-appointed role is to shatter everybody’s dreams and rub their noses in reality. Holden has a graceful, worldly attractiveness that enlivens her character, and she zeroes in quickly for the kill by informing Juanita that her supposed saint of a husband was “a rotten son of a bitch” and a bitter, bigoted alcoholic. Next in line for psychological stripteasing is sexy, long-legged Sissy, who harbors the impossible dream of joining the Ice Capades. Stewart, sashaying about in Shon Le Blanc’s trashy flowered red suit, lets us see the insecurity behind a promiscuous woman’s pose. A few of the characters, such as tart Stella Mae and mousy Edna Louise, offer dabs of color (Stella Mae screams a great line, “I’m happy, God damn it!”), but both are thinly drawn. As Joe, who’s seen in frequent, youthful flashbacks, Veach surmounts his skeletal role, conveying the pain of a town outcast with enough urgency to make his later sex change believable. Ginger Kinison and Erin Ross excel as young Mona and Sissy, respectively. Director Hochberg skillfully weaves his flashbacks of the 1955 Joe, Mona and Sissy, often placing scenes on a small, scrimmed, second-floor room above the stage. Time shifts are frequent, and Hochberg splices them together so neatly that nothing feels cluttered. Author Graczyk’s key accomplishment is showing just how far people will go to make themselves important. Mona, told she was invisible in “Giant,” protests, “Elizabeth Taylor got in the way. … You can see me peeking out from behind her left ear.” The synthetic aspect of the script comes across when everybody worships Dean’s memory, yet specific characteristics that made him a legend are never satisfactorily cited. Another contrivance is Mona’s insistence on branding her son retarded and moronic simply to keep him from leaving her side. These drawbacks constantly threaten the authenticity of the piece, but Overall — staking Mona’s tiny claim to immortality by claiming, “He chose me from everyone else to bring his child into the world” — creates a keenly felt, tormented truth of her own.