My Deah

There's always room for good, old-fashioned trash, and John Epperson knows how to provide it. As Lypsinka, his fabulously tragic alter ego, Epperson mouths along to the divas of film and radio, enacting their saddest recordings with a perfect understanding of how camp can be ludicrous and pitiful at the same time.

With:
My Deah Hedgepeth, Lillie V. - Nancy Opel Gator Hedgepeth - Maxwell Caulfield

There’s always room for good, old-fashioned trash, and John Epperson knows how to provide it. As Lypsinka, his fabulously tragic alter ego, Epperson mouths along to the divas of film and radio, enacting their saddest recordings with a perfect understanding of how camp can be ludicrous and pitiful at the same time. As a playwright, he funnels that sensibility into “My Deah,” an adaptation of “Medea” that sets the Greek murderess loose on modern-day Mississippi.

Play will mean most to those who know Euripides’ original, in which foreign-born Medea betrays her family to live with Jason in Corinth. The warrior abandons Medea for a younger princess, which so unhinges her that she kills her children to get revenge on their father.

In Epperson’s warped world, aging beauty queen My Deah (Nancy Opel) has rebuked her Louisiana heritage to shack up with Gator Hedgepeth (Maxwell Caufield), an ex-footballer who played for Mississippi. The college football rivalry is so enormous that no one has ever accepted My Deah in her adopted state, which is partly why Gator has ditched her for the governor’s daughter.

Epperson, himself a Mississippian, proves an expert on the Greek drama, tweaking every possible detail in his update. The play feels sturdy because his inventive touches — like having Medea’s maid become a psychotic Cajun nanny (also played by Opel) — are always grounded in a clear dramatic structure.

Scribe also knows how to include throwaway jokes without halting the story’s momentum. My Deah’s chorus of gossipy neighbors is played by men in drag, and the references to their manliness are so quick they could be missed. Likewise, almost every Southern locale in the history of fiction — from Petticoat Junction to Belle Rive — gets a passing reference. Because they don’t linger, these cheap gags are a welcome part of the fun.

The tacky designs also are appropriate. Mark T. Simpson’s set — the porch and front yard of a plantation house — looks destined to collapse, and the flowers in the planters are brazenly fake. The design tells us we can laugh at everything, since the characters are just as cheap as their surroundings.

Costumer Ramona Ponce dresses Opel in ill-fitting frocks that wittily recall women on Grecian urns. Designer’s great achievement, though, is the get-up for Simplicity Bullard (Lori Gardner), the slutty governor’s spawn who steals Gator’s, um, heart. Gardner strolls around in short shorts, scarlet halter top and towering red heels. Trash doesn’t get any whiter.

Gardner’s and Opel’s perfs both do justice to their outfits. Thesps are clearly having fun, but they never let mugging get in the way of their characters’ intentions.

Other cast members are more focused on telling jokes than playing the action of a scene, which makes them seem a tad desperate. Even in camp, performers need to trust their material to reach auds without the help of eye rolls and hand gestures that point out the funny bits.

Doubling as neighbor ladies and My Deah’s sons, Kevin Townley and Geoffrey Molloy never relax into their roles. They neither sound comfortable with a Southern accent nor move gracefully on their high-heeled pumps. As the boys’ barely closeted football coach, Michael Hunsaker misjudges the timing of his jokes, and they all sound forced.

But even flawed casting can’t hide “My Deah’s” gaudy charm. The play could have ample life as a latenight treat for a crowd of happy weirdoes.

My Deah

Dorothy Strelsin Theater; 98 seats; $35 top

Production: An Abingdon Theater Company presentation of a play in one act by John Epperson. Directed by Mark Waldrop.

Creative: Sets and lighting, Mark T. Simpson; costumes, Ramona Ponce; sound, Matt Berman; production stage manager, Kimothy Cruse. Opened Oct. 24, 2006. Reviewed Oct. 20. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast: My Deah Hedgepeth, Lillie V. - Nancy Opel Gator Hedgepeth - Maxwell CaulfieldWith: Jay Rogers, Kevin Townley, Geoffrey Molloy, Michael Hunsaker, Peter Brouwer, Lori Gardner.

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