Live Bait Theater

The title is telling. Sharon Evans’s sweet, clever, and sometimes very funny comedy doesn’t relay the story of its ex-cheerleader heroine so much as it offers a picture of her–or rather a collage, pieced together from fragments of snapshots, glossy publicity stills, and a few self-portraits idly sketched in the margins of the subject’s date book. Portrait of a Shiksa is a study, in images, of images–images of self and images of salvation, sought by a woman whose quest takes her from the rural south to the heights of Hollywood by way of born-again Christianity and a nervous breakdown.

The subject of this tabloid feature for the stage is Adelle, in whose life People magazine has taken interest because she’s a national celebrity: the blond, bosomy star of one of the 90s’ biggest TV hits, The New Beverly Hillbillies. Underneath that tight, checkered Ellie Mae blouse there quivers the soul of a questing, conflicted woman; her rags-to-riches progress and spiritual search make for a terrific photo spread. Positively inspirational.

Portrait of a Shiksa begins with sexy teenage Adelle accompanying her lumpy, loving mama on a “Footsteps of Jesus” tour of Israel. For Adelle, the trip is just a nice free vacation, a relief from her daily grind of styling human-hair wigs in her family’s garage in little ol’ Calhoun, Tennessee. For Mama, a card-carrying member of the BBB Club (that’s Bring Back the Bakkers), the journey is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to walk where her savior walked and bathe where he bathed. If Adelle doesn’t share the faith, she can at least take a snapshot of Mama standing in the River Jordan or carrying a cross through the streets of Jerusalem.

But Adelle’s trip to Israel has a profound effect on her: it’s her first exposure to Jewish men, and she finds them overwhelming. So when she returns home, the familiar portrait of handsome, long-haired, bearded Jesus that adorns the quilt hanging from the clothesline suddenly strikes her with its full erotic and spiritual force.

Her conversion motivates Adelle to dump the wig business and pursue a career as a fashion model and then a TV actress. It’s a big wide wonderful world out there, full of people whose like girls growing up in Calhoun, Tennessee, never saw. By the time Adelle strikes it big as the new Ellie Mae, her mama isn’t sure whether to be more upset by the bad image of southerners her daughter is projecting onscreen or the kinds of men she hangs out with offscreen. That photographer, Ira, for example–he’s getting a little too close to Adelle for Mama’s comfort. (Asked by Adelle what’s wrong with marrying a Jew, Mama responds with scientific certainty: “Your blood won’t mix.”) And that producer, Barry, who picked out a new dress for Adelle to give her mother–he’s one of those homosexuals, isn’t he? (“Are you telling me there aren’t any gay people in Tennessee?” Barry inquires. Mama’s resentful response: “Well, there weren’t until Senator Helms chased ’em all out of North Carolina.”) But when Adelle and Mama finally reach a woman-to-woman understanding, Barry and Ira are right alongside–Barry to frame the picture and Ira to shoot it.

Unlike Evans’s Girls! Girls! Girls! Live on Stage . . . Totally Rude, with its slice-of-life barroom setting and eclectic array of characters, Portrait of a Shiksa has an artificial, tightly selective feel that at first is off-putting but grows more intriguing as the play’s identity as a three-dimensional magazine feature emerges. There are only four characters in the whole play–Adelle, Mama, Ira, and Barry–as if Evans didn’t want to clutter her pictures with unimportant faces. These four characters sometimes interact in naturalistic fashion; at other times they directly address the audience to explain their feelings. The effect of these two narrative modes is comparable to a photo feature in which pictures of a group of people alternate with single head shots accompanied by a captioned quotation; every picture tells a story.

Evans’s dramatic scheme is cleverly complemented by David Lee Csicsko’s scrapbook of a set–including a knee-high cutout skyline of Jerusalem, a slide projection of the Wailing Wall, and a hilarious miniature airplane consisting of two wings, two seats, and a pair of landing lights–which emphasizes the playing area’s restrictions rather than hiding them (as his perfect recreation of an Uptown tavern did in Girls! Girls! Girls!). And Thomas C. Hase’s lighting design isolates the actors in a series of angular frames of light as if they were models in a photo studio whose only reality was the tight visual boundaries set up immediately around them for the camera’s eye. Mary-Michael Hanbury’s costumes are finely calculated to capture abrupt changes in the characters’ outlooks and lifestyles.

So are the performances coaxed from the four-person cast by director Mary McAuliffe. As Mama, Maripat Donovan is sheer delight: a very sweet woman who just happens to be a small-minded bigot and whose dependence on religion makes her a pathetically perfect mark for the money grubbers and headline grabbers who try to dominate evangelical Christianity. Long-legged, beautiful Catherine Evans has a perfect Priscilla Presley pout as sexy, snotty, insecure Adelle; Lee R. Sellars strikes just the right note of alienation as Ira, the Jewish photographer with a fixation on Christian girls (he translates “shiksa” as “forbidden fruit”); as Barry, the gay producer who specializes in family entertainment, Ted Bales captures the high-strung brilliance, ironic superiority, and underlying vulnerability of an outsider forever trying to fit into society by manipulating the images it watches.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/R.E. Potter.