Jessie McCormack has fashioned a likably off-kilter yarn focusing on dysfunctional small-town Southern folk and the hapless young traveler who becomes trapped in their midst.

Scripter-thesp Jessie McCormack has fashioned a quirky, likably off-kilter yarn focusing on monumentally dysfunctional small-town Southern folk and the hapless young traveler who becomes trapped in their midst. Helmer Rod McLachlan adequately guides the ensemble through the script’s often-surprising twists and turns, but with the cast suffering from either opening-night nerves or a lack of adequate rehearsal time, McCormack’s well-crafted amalgam of absurdity and pathos is not realized to optimum effect.

Set entirely within the confines of Keith Mitchell’s perfectly realized hick-town roadside diner, the action centers on the ultra-depressing life and times of Jolene (played by the playwright), a waitress almost psychotically devoted to all things having to do with her idol, rags-to-riches singing star Dolly Parton.

Following a well-honed dramatic convention, Jolene’s ambition is to flee this claustrophobic town, but she’s hampered by her demanding, bedridden mother; her brain-damaged fiance, Manny (Erik Van Wyck); and her own emotional inadequacy.

A ray of hope emerges, however, when New York-bound musician Josh (Henry Gummer) is stranded for a few days while Manny fixes his disabled car.

McCormack slides comfortably into the persona of the perennially depressed Jolene, who is constantly spouting comical rejoinders about the state of her existence. It is a telling moment when she confides that the only pleasure she gets from life is sticking Q-tips into her ears. McCormack’s Jolene is at her comical best when exuding her Dolly mania, offering an eye-popping, disbelieving double take when Josh matter-of-factly admits he has never listened to a Dolly Parton song.

As the newfound object of Jolene’s unwanted affection, Gummer’s Josh doesn’t fare as well. Throughout the first act, Gummer unsuccessfully searches for a character on which to hang a performance. Gummer is more in tune with Josh in the second act, but unfortunately obliterates a couple of McCormack’s well-crafted comedic setups.

Van Wyck offers a striking presence as Manny, a Brooklyn-born former race-car driver whose near-fatal crash has turned him into a semi-deranged, chaotically volatile cog in Jolene’s life. Van Wyck’s timing is occasionally out-of-sync with the flow of dialogue, but the thesp offers a dynamic turn, in flashback, as the freewheeling Adonis who once won Jolene’s heart.

The most impressive, comedic perf is turned in by Melissa Greenspan as Cici, the diner’s supercharged mini dynamo who is so desperate to be needed that she leaps out to absorb everything around her, including Manny and Josh. To her credit, Greenspan also invests Cici with such a deep-felt sense of compassion and understanding; she just might be the most well-adjusted person in town.

Punctuating the proceedings are well-placed snippets of Parton tunes that magnify Jolene’s thoughts and actions. There is also a pre-recorded voiceover by Parton that fits quite adroitly into the plotline. The country superstar is a vital part of the final scene photo montage (by Steve Altman) that chronicles Jolene’s last-ditch effort to grasp at personal salvation.

Journey to Dollywood

Matrix Theater;99 seats; $20 top

Production

An Onomatope Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Jessie McCormack. Directed by Rod McLachlan.

Creative

Sets, Keith Mitchell; costumes, Sharell Martin; lighting, Kimberly Negrete; sound and projections, Steve Altman; stage manager, Nick Frumkin. Opened, reviewed, Sept. 15, 2007. Closes Oct. 27. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Jolene - Jessie McCormack Josh - Henry Gummer Cici - Melissa Greenspan Manny - Erik Van Wyck Dolly's Voice - Dolly Parton
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