Writer-director Del Shores has been poking fun at the American South for decades on L.A. stages. His 1987 comedy, Daddy's Dyin' (Whose Got the Will?), played for months at Theatre/Theater, then on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. A latter-day The Miser, Daddy's Dyin' established Shores as an acute satirist of regional mores. His characters plead the case for reason amid the insanity of entrenched values, including bigotry, much the way they do in Molière's Tartuffe, or Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You. Behind the comic fury in all these plays are the outcasts asking for a little fairness, if not understanding, from a belligerent and bellicose world.
Southern Baptist Sissies (2000), probably Shores' most pedantic comedy, took the plight of being gay in the Deep South to almost witheringly comedic lengths, the play and its preacher character competing for the pulpit. The very title of Shores' The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife (2003) implies the rare blend of mockery and affection that makes his plays so appealing.
Shores' new play, Yellow, premiered over the weekend at the Coast Playhouse. This family comedy-drama inverts the premise of Daddy's Dyin' in order to study, once more, the mores and traditions of the Deep South, perhaps the country's most extreme forms of religiosity and homophobia, which have been haunting the playwright for all these years.
How does one get out alive, with the curses of the underworld hanging over a believer: change or be changed? Does one run to New York City, or San Francisco or West Hollywood? Lead a double life? Become a playwright?
In Daddy's Dyin', the patriarch was hanging to life by a thread. Family and friends, mostly white trash, swirled through the play's swampy air with the kind of wit drawn from the bleak humor of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Beth Henley. In Yellow, set in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Shores takes the prodigal, sports-hero son (Luke McClure) of a very appealing couple, Bobby and Kate Westmoreland (David Cowgill and Kristen McCullough), both in their 40s, and he gives the high-school boy a rare liver disease — terminal unless the family can find an organ donor in time. Yes, you're right, this idea is not funny, unless Shores' plan is to parody Lifetime movies, which it's not.
Old men dying can be funny, if they're written by Molière or Chekhov, instead of, say, Tennessee Williams. However, the pending death of young sports heroes like Yellow's Dayne Westmoreland, is almost never funny. It's the stuff of soap opera or, on a good day, tragedy. Or, actually, on a bad day.
Strangely enough, Yellow, is neither tragedy nor soap opera; its "disease-of-the-week" dimension surges between the two along a riptide of sentimentality. It comes accompanied by Dayne's cloyingly jealous younger sister, Gracie (Evie Louis Thompson, in a brilliantly comic performance of jaw-dropping solipsism and belligerence), who's forced to dabble in at least the margins of civility (if not humanity) by grappling with her brother's disease. And that dabbling is part of Shores' sentimental formula.
Extending the sentimental streak, Gracie's gay friend, Kendall (Matthew Scott Montgomery), has a Pentecostal mother named Sister Timothea, played with a persuasively and terrifying severity by Susan Leslie. Timothea's zealotry means that Kendall has to hide from her his participation in the high school musicals, which would render him a sinner in her eyes, though certainly not in his. Kendall's dad skipped out some time ago, for reasons that are apparent when Timothea arrives holding her Bible in everybody's face. There's also a history of child abuse by Timothea against her son, which certainly stacks the deck against her; Timothea's fear of having her sordid history exposed leads to what would otherwise be a remarkable concession: allowing the Westmorelands to adopt Kendall. Seeing him in the Westmoreland home, embraced by Dayne and Gracie's father, who asks the boy to call him "Dad," and explains to the trembling outcast that he now has a family, is downright Dickensian, the kind of fairy-tale rescue even Disney would envy. It's also what distinguishes Yellow from a play like Tracy Letts' August, Osage County, which shares Shores' gothic humor and eye for regional detail, but keeps sentimentality so far at bay, it's comparatively glib.
If Letts' play suffers from too much craft and distance, Shores' play suffers from the inverse: an excess of heart that nudges toward fantasy.
That said, Yellow is a rippingly entertaining show, thanks largely to Shores' precision-bombing satire of self-absorbed teenagers and drama clubs. ("She's an amateur, a marginal talent," Kendall says, like John Simon, of the girl who got the lead in the high school production of Oklahoma). Add Shores' own direction of what may be the finest ensemble on a local stage so far this year. Shores needs to direct his play everywhere it goes, and preferably with this cast.
When Thompson's young Gracie blurts out to Kendall, "You're gay," with hands on hips and such blistering authority, she might as well be flicking piece of snot from a nostril. The truth of Gracie's perception couldn't be clearer to any observer, but the key to the kingdom lies beneath the line, in Kendall's slightly confused reaction. It's just a glint in Montgomery's eye, that through all of Kendall's blather of who played whom in which Broadway revival, or his glee in dressing up in full cowboy attire to rehearse a dance scene from Oklahoma "in costume" in the middle of the Westmoreland's living room, it simply never occurred to him, not even a hint of an idea, that he may be homosexual.
Luke McClure's patriarch is testament to tender masculinity, one tested by the revelation of a family secret. The harrowing consequences of that revelation allow Kristen McCullough to shine as his embattled wife. She's already shown endearing intelligence in her reactions to the hysterics of her teenage daughter, in a smile that doesn't quite push into laughter, which would be cruel. No, there's a kindness here, even in the face of Gracie's insults to her "thundering thighs" — which she doesn't have.
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When she's trying to process the anguish of a husband who can no longer bear to look at her, every layer of hell appears on her face — another breathtaking performance in a production filled with them.
Robert Steinberg's living room/veranda set features a periphery of pillars with ivy slithering up. Old Miss. Might as well be Ancient Greece. Tradition unyielding. Sacrifice and salvation.
Shores has constructed Yellow on such pillars, trying to fathom what it means to be human, of whether that enduring quality is made of flesh or marble.
YELLOW | By Del Shores | Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., W.Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through June 27 | yellowbydelshores.com.