The seriousness bubbling under all of Del Shores’ campy southern Gothic farces takes center stage in his latest play “Yellow,” as personal catastrophe pulls a family out of its complacency. Shores might’ve been wiser to hand off helming chores to someone inclined to trim the fat and steer clear of bathos. Its roughness and excesses notwithstanding, the beautifully cast Coast Playhouse premiere production casts a haunted, melancholy spell.
Shores has invented some memorably wacky relatives in works like “Sordid Lives,” but the Westmorelands of Mississippi are the picture of healthy normalcy. Mom and Pop (Kristen McCullough and David Cowgill) are stable working professionals raising, with the standard strains and growing pains, high school scholar-athlete Dayne (Luke McClure) and put-upon drama club diva Gracie (Evie Louise Thompson). Then out of the blue, their golden boy turns jaundice yellow. The resulting health crisis pulls secrets rather than sexuality out of the closet, testing the limits of the Westmorelands’ bonds and religious faith.
Religion, in particular, crashes into the house with the fanatical Sister Timothea (Susan Leslie), ready to lay her healing hands on Dayne even as she battles the demons within her pretty-boy son Kendall (Matthew Scott Montgomery), Gracie’s musical comedy co-conspirator.
Shores typically dramatizes the clash between fundamentalism and flamboyance, but by putting them into the same family he achieves some blazing dramatic effects.
That’s not to say the blaze doesn’t get out of control. Helmer Shores does scribe Shores no favor by allowing the many showdowns and standoffs to overheat too early. Action shifting to the front porch almost invariably goes over the top, and indulgent pauses lend soap opera banality to the naturalistic dialogue.
That “Yellow” eventually finds its footing is a tribute to its thesps’ dogged commitment to truthful behavior. McCullough and Cowgill’s dissolve from a placidly devoted couple to two strangers lacking foundation couldn’t be more believable, while Leslie successfully battles audience hoots at her Bible thumping to establish her sincerity. (The crowd may sneer at faith but Shores never does, one of his dramaturgy’s great strengths in anatomizing the modern South.)
McClure embodies his assigned “perfect son” label while endowing Dayne with a mischievous, self-centered streak. Even Thompson, uncomfortably dominating act one as a screeching devil spawn, calms down enough to take Gracie through a moving series of emotional hoops.
Meanwhile, Montgomery’s ease and ready humanity handily walk off with the production. It’s not easy to play a holy fool type utterly without vanity, devoted only to making things better for those he loves. In Montgomery’s hands, Kendall stands as the play’s moral center while remaining utterly real.
Easily the most affecting sequence Shores has ever penned is the scene in which the lad — surely more knowledgeable about Chita Rivera than anyone in Vicksburg history — narrates the story of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to his ailing idol. This idiosyncratic playwright clearly has even more surprises up his sleeve.