Dali Drama Theatre Company
at Cafe Voltaire
I’ve never been a huge Elvis fan–I was 12 when he died and remember him as a pudgy anachronism in a sequined jumpsuit–but there’s something about him that appeals to my sloppy, sentimental side. When it comes to uncomplicated, heartfelt love songs, there’s no disputing the King’s title.
Ellen Byron’s two one-acts about Elvis devotees play a lot like a good Elvis love song: easy, emotional, loaded with sincerity, and aimed right at the softest part of your heart. Tripe in the hands of an amateur, but three-hanky material when performed by a pro. The Dali Drama production of Byron’s one-acts is a little ragged around the edges (like much of what goes on at Cafe Voltaire), but Jack Sanderson’s sensitive direction and the engaging performances save it from being just another sad tune.
In Asleep on the Wind, a brother and sister in the Louisiana bayou dream of escape. Fourteen-year-old Rootie wants to escape from her abusive family, but her imagination doesn’t take her much farther than New Orleans. Her beloved older brother Beau does his best to protect and distract her. An ardent Elvis fan, he coaches her on the King’s vital stats and amuses her with impromptu impersonations. Together they escape their lives momentarily, waltzing around the empty field where their ancestral plantation once stood. But for Beau childhood games and dreams of Elvis aren’t enough–escape means leaving Louisiana and the daily grind of working in a sugar refinery altogether. He wants to go where there are “palm trees and grass huts, and girls give you flowers and kisses, like in Blue Hawaii.” For a poor Cajun boy in 1972 that meant Vietnam. He informs a devastated Rootie that he’s enlisted in the Army, entrusts her with his collection of Elvis records, and makes her promise to finish school.
The only light in Rootie’s life, he’s so concerned about her and so charming that it’s fairly obvious he’s doomed. As in any old Elvis love song, subtlety is not the raison d’etre. What matters is Rootie and Beau’s relationship, which the actors have fleshed out beautifully and honestly.
Jeff Myers as Beau is every girl’s dream of a big brother: thoughtful, charismatic, and torn between his love for his sister and his desire for something better in life. As Rootie, Mary Gallagher is an absolute heartbreaker, layering the girl’s adoration of Beau with a touch of impatience and a great deal of barely controlled panic at the thought of losing him.
In Graceland, the second of the one-acts, it’s ten years later, and Rootie is pitching a meager camp outside Elvis’s mansion two days before it’s to open to the public. Her brother died in Vietnam, and she’s emotionally abused by her husband. But her faith in Elvis lives on–she’s determined to be the first person to set foot through the gates of Graceland, meaning to commune with the spirit of her brother, who she’s sure is keeping company with the King.
Bev, an older housewife from Delaware, is also determined to be first through the gates, and she gives Rootie lessons in what it really means to believe in Elvis–she’s brought her sleeping bag and a pillow with Elvis’s face emblazoned on it. The two women with little in common talk as Rootie pathetically applies the makeup her husband has told her she’s too ugly to go without, and we find out what happened to her in the last ten years. As Bev, Diane Zimmer finds the heart hidden behind her lime green polyester pantsuit, making a fine foil for Rootie as her polite curiosity dissolves into outrage at the younger woman’s matter-of-fact list of woes.
A touch on the facile side and often predictable, these one-acts are given life by a talented cast that never condescends to the characters. And Elvis impersonator Dave Carlson keeps us entertained between the plays with a rather cheesy set of Elvis classics, including a lovely rendition of my favorite, “Are You Lonesome To-night?”