Center Theater

The year is 1934, and America continues to sink deeper and deeper into the Depression. But Prohibition has finally been repealed, giving rise to an innovation in entertainment called the “cocktail lounge,” where lonely men can drown bitter memories in 25-cent whiskey and maybe dance to the music of another new invention, the jukebox, with a “taxi dancer” partner hired from the management. Reed Hooker, an out-of-work bootlegger, is hoping to cash in on this trend. He recently won a ramshackle farmhouse in a poker game (and along with it an unlovely 15-year-old waif named Cassidy–“I could have taken a chestnut mare, but I took her instead”), and he wants to turn his newly acquired real estate into an enterprise offering “the glamour, magic, and music of city sporting life to simple country folk aching for dazzling companionship.”

This will not be easy. For one thing, the Lucky Spot, as Hooker has christened his venture, is located a full 60 miles from New Orleans. For another, a local businessman named Whitt Carmichael exhibits a strong, almost obsessive interest in gaining ownership of the property. There is also the matter of Cassidy’s advanced pregnancy–the father is Hooker–which she accepts with serenity only because she believes that he will marry her once he has divorced his wife, Sue Jack. On this Christmas Eve, the grand opening of the Lucky Spot, all but one of the dancers-for-hire have fled the premises upon hearing that Sue Jack, who’s notorious for her jealous furies, is being released from prison, where she has been serving a three-year term for pitching a rival (who just happens to have been the sister of Carmichael) off a balcony.

The characters created by Mississippi-bred playwright Beth Henley have sometimes been described as eccentric, and her portrayals of life in the rural south may indeed appear strange. But the eccentricities could be explained by the fact that before mass communications and sweeping government programs brought a uniform standard of living to isolated areas, there existed throughout the United States (and still exists, albeit to a lesser extent) pockets as remote from the niceties we take for granted–hospitals, schools, courthouses–as any 19th-century frontier settlement. Or eccentricity could be a regional characteristic; as fellow southerner Florence King once wrote, “Build a fence around the South and you’d have one big madhouse.”

In any case, neither Henley nor her characters think it at all startling that Cassidy has six “pretty little toes” on one foot, that Lacey has ankles that buckle at the slightest agitation, or that Hooker dismisses a bleeding gash in his arm with a casual “Knife wound–self-inflicted misfortune.” Nor does anyone find it particularly disconcerting to hear Sue Jack muse, while regarding her reflection, “Shouldn’t be looking in mirrors. My mama, she shot herself while looking in a full-length mirror.” Or odd that Turnip Moss, who can’t remember that he was ever called any other name, suddenly bursts forth with such insightful eloquence as, “I wish I wasn’t so plagued by self-doubt.”

But even as we laugh at their sallies, we sense the undercurrent of darkness. Sue Jack tells of prison guards demanding sexual favors in exchange for extra water or a pair of shoes. Cassidy explains how she became the stake in the poker game and shows the livestock brand put on her by her former guardian. And we laugh all the harder, as the characters do, with an appreciation of the dogged courage and strength that makes the best of the most hard and unjust life.

The key to playing Henley is regionality, and Center Theater’s production has been meticulously researched, accurately reproducing even the heavily distorted Louisiana delta speech in which “hair” rhymes with “bar” and “yeah” becomes a four-syllable word. Credit is due dialect coach Joanna McClay for stopping well short of unintelligibility in localizing the pronunciation. John Murbach’s set evokes just the right amount of dry-rot shabbiness, while Ed Bevan and Julia Dunatov place us firmly in period with their carefully selected props, including the spectacularly garish jukebox from Steppenwolf’s The Geography of Luck, which is blown up with a 12-gauge shotgun during a ripsnorter of a domestic quarrel (ably choreographed by Dave Clements, with assistance from Rob Hamilton on “pyrotechnics”). The entire cast, under the evenhanded direction of Norma E. Saldivar, give convincing and compassionate, if sometimes uncertain, performances. Outstanding are Robin Witt as the endearingly grotesque Cassidy and Champ Clark as the kindhearted Turnip. (So completely do we come to rely on Turnip’s optimism that a momentary loss of it disturbs us in a way that none of the other hard-luck talk does–not bad for an actor who played Richard Nixon in Center Theater’s last production.) Center Theater members Marc Vann, as Hooker, and Sheryl Nieman, as Sue Jack, deliver strong, competent performances as well, though Nieman, with her regal beauty, lacks the trashy edge of a belle brought low. And Bevan’s Carmichael is just a little too much the conventional playboy to be effective as a genuine heavy.

The Lucky Spot is not merely another southern-fried line of subliterate hicks paraded out for our scornful amusement. And Henley has not taken the facile sitcom route to a happy resolution. By the end of the play nothing has changed substantially from the beginning and nobody’s material lot has improved (nobody we care about anyway). A 1928 song that eventually became one of the anthems of the Depression years declared, “I can’t give you anything but love” (a sentiment that may be revived as the current recession drags on). Glad as we may be that we are not spending Christmas morning with the folks at the Lucky Spot, we can still be glad that they have each other.