Oscar-nominated thesp Karen Black (“Five Easy Pieces”) teams with Grammy-nominated tunesmith Harriet Schock (“Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady”) on an endearingly sentimental if thematically rudimentary sojourn through the comical tribulations of one family in a small Midwestern town. “Missouri Waltz” is enlivened by the quirky interactions of middle-aged sisters Chrissie (Black) and Bea (Dana Peterson) and their prodigal, twentysomething niece Zoe (Whitney Laux), who almost make up for this legiter’s lackluster plot. Helmer Angela Garcia Combs correctly keeps the focus on the ladies.
Set in the summer of 1973, the action all takes place in the well-used living room (impressively detailed by Ginnie Ann Held) of Chrissie and Bea’s once-grand, now decaying, ancestral home in New Madrid, Mo., on the banks of the Mississippi. Scripter Black simplistically solves all plot complications by making the sisters deceased specters who have the ability to manipulate the action at will, including the pausing of time, the shifting of physical objects and the blinking of lights.
Since their only adversary is Bea’s horny but greedy ex-husband, Anton (played to the hypocritical hilt by Eric Pierpoint), who is simultaneously bent on seducing niece Zoe and cheating her out of her rightful estate, his defeat is an undramatic, inevitable conclusion. The minor subplot involving Bea’s former adoring high school classmate Jerry (Weston Blakesley) is inconsequential.
What does work is the captivating interweaving of Chrissie’s and Bea’s personas as they speak directly to the audience, relating the family’s 150-year Irish immigrant history, recalling their own lives, rife with quirky shenanigans, unfulfilled dreams and failed marriages.
Particularly entertaining is the often simultaneous discourse on a specific event, with each sister offering a slight variation on the actual facts. Together, they offer a richly detailed, comedic panorama of an American family.
Laux’s Zoe is credible as the former rebellious teen whose years of living in a commune have wizened her to the realities of the world, making her more than ready to settle down in the family home to raise her unborn child. Laux also instills veracity into Zoe’s intuitive understanding that the hovering presences she senses around her are her otherworldly aunts.
The five melodic and insightful Schock songs are incorporated as commentary on the action. Peterson offers a forceful “OK, You Win, I Give Up, You’re Right, I’m Gone” (co-written with Jannel Rap), as she recalls Anton’s philandering ways when they were married. The principal vocal chores are handled by Laux, offering an appealing, slightly countrified lilt to the gentle ballads “Dancing With My Father” (co-written with Ron Troutman) and the show-closing “Home.”
“Missouri Waltz” would have more credible legs if Black dispensed with the melodramatic “lose the house to the tax man” plot and just let the aunties have at the audience, with the Schock tunes thrown in.