Chicago Theatre Company

Shirley Hardy-Leonard certainly knows how to please an audience, but that doesn’t mean she knows how to write an effective play. In Miss Dessa, Hardy-Leonard has created caricatures instead of characters. She has given them platitudes and laugh lines to deliver instead of incisive dialogue. She has put them in a plot that stops and starts like a bus in rush-hour traffic; the destination hardly seems worth the trip.

Still, Hardy-Leonard has an instinct for giving people a good time. Toward the end of Miss Dessa, which produced gales of laughter from the opening-night audience, I overheard a woman say, “I wish they’d bring back Sis.” She was referring to the oldest of the three sisters in the play–a smug, sanctimonious, Bible-thumping hypocrite from Cleveland. Who should appear at that very moment but Sis. Why? Her two sisters had decided to spike her tea with vodka and get her rip-roaring drunk. The playwright seemed to recognize that the play needed a few laughs at that point, and she knew exactly which character could get them. The audience loved it.

So if the audience loved it, Miss Dessa must be a good play, right? Well, only if you think a TV sitcom constitutes drama. Like so many young playwrights, the author has absorbed the patter and the pacing of television. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that young playwrights don’t read much anymore–or go to the theater, for that matter. They watch TV instead and come to the conclusion that what they see is merely a play broken up by commercials. When they decide to write a play, what comes out is the sitcom formula, which will look pretty good–at least to those steeped in TV sitcoms.

Miss Dessa is a prime example of this formula. The play is about a 40-year-old schoolteacher named Ardessa Warnette who lives in a decaying steel town, where she is raising Eugene, her brother’s illegitimate 16-year-old son. Dessa lives in the house left to her by her parents, along with her promiscuous sister Althea, who is a waitress, and Althea’s husband, Buddy, an overweight housepainter who spends most of his free time sitting around drinking Old Milwaukee beer.

During one of her annual visits, Sis shows up with a bit of information she shares with Althea. According to the will left by their parents, Dessa retains 50 percent ownership of the house as long as she remains single. If she marries, the three sisters and their brother will each own a quarter of the house.

Althea agrees to help Sis find a husband for Dessa and then sell the house. With her share of the proceeds from the sale, Althea could get her nails done all the time and might be able to quit her job. Moreover, she says, “Why not make her suffer too?”

In a painfully silly scene, Sis brings home Deacon Stamps, a doddering 93-year-old church member she met at a convention. Douglas Alan-Mann, bent at the waist and inching along with the help of a cane, plays the deacon with one foot in the grave and one eye on any shapely female who walks by. When Eugene comes home, he glances at the deacon sitting in front of the house and asks, “Who’s the dead old dude?” The audience loved it.

The match doesn’t work out, of course. But then Dessa meets a 21-year-old worker at the steel plant across the road. The man, named John, accidentally hits her with a football. During the ensuing argument he asks her for a date. While yelling back at him, Dessa accepts. The rest of the play is taken up with the awkward, unlikely romance that develops.

On the surface, Miss Dessa is a story of liberation. After spending her life taking care of her parents’ house and her brother’s child, Dessa suddenly finds the resolve to start taking care of her own needs. But if the play advocates this independent spirit, it then undercuts that spirit with the three sisters’ preoccupation with men. Sis derives much of her self-respect from her 22-year marriage, though she confesses, while drunk, to lusting after other men. Althea needs the attention of every man she meets. And Dessa is portrayed as ultimately unfulfilled because she doesn’t have a man.

The script is weak, and the direction, by Delia Jolly Coy, is alternately hyperactive and lethargic. But the performances are strong. John S. Crowley is a fine character actor who creates a vivid portrait of Buddy, even though he has just a few lines of dialogue. Linda Maurel is wonderfully saucy and selfish as Althea, while Irma P. Hall portrays Sis as a glorious buffoon. As John, the gentleman caller, Brian K. Spivey tries valiantly to inject a little heart into his false, sentimental dialogue, and Raine Walker uses her graceful manner and serene expression to project Dessa’s independence and strength.

Miss Dessa could pass as a pilot for a TV sitcom. It has many of the traits–wisecracking characters, preposterous predicaments, vaguely ribald sex talk, a romantic resolution. There is one big difference, however–it takes more than two hours to tell a story that would fit neatly into a 22-minute slot. Of course, the length is no problem, as long as the audience loves it.