Anti-Western, Texas Plays Kick Off Theater Season

Christy Iverson, Mellisa Stein and Sherri DeMarino on a hot Texas porch in "Laundry & Bourbon." (Photo: Chris Roll)

Christy Iverson, Mellisa Stein and Sherri DeMarino on a hot Texas porch in “Laundry & Bourbon.”
(Photo: Chris Roll)


December 1, 2014

In the early 1960s, novelist Larry McMurtry studied writing as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. In that same class was Ken Kesey, Peter S. Beagle, Robert Stone, and Gordon Lish. While Kesey was taking his trip across America (with his band of Merry Pranksters) in a day-glo-painted school bus, McMurtry returned to Texas to begin creating the desolate, anti-western motif found in his novels. The adaptation of his novel Horseman, Pass By into the film Hud, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Patricia Neal, Paul Newman, and Melvyn Douglas, sealed his reputation. McMurtry’s anti-western motif reached its apex with Peter Bogdonovich’s adaptation of his novel The Last Picture Show, starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and the debut of Cybil Shepherd (whom McMurtry described as a beautiful scoop of vanilla ice cream).

Last week, the Palace Theatre brought to the stage a giant swig of that same anti-western, north-Texas motif with the production of James McClure’s set of one act plays Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon (together, also known as 1959 Pink Thunderbird). Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star are set in the small, rural town of Maynard, Texas. Mclure’s scripts for both shows cling to McMurtry’s recurring themes of discontent, distorted memory, and the ultimate acceptance of your life, one way or another.

Laundry and Bourbon, deftly directed by Clelia Sheppard, takes place in the back yard of Elizabeth (played by Christy Iverson). Her AC is broken, and as it’s way too hot on her front porch, she retreats to the back where she does her very best to avoid a basketful of laundry that is ready for folding. She has a lot on her mind since her husband Roy, a restless Vietnam veteran, has been missing for two days, out somewhere in his beloved 1959 pink Thunderbird. Soon enough her closest friend Hattie (Mellisa Stein) arrives to shoot the breeze, as well as some bourbon, a refuge and respite from her three challenging children.


Iverson was once again fresh and delightful as the frustrated Elizabeth; she has an incredible knack for building characters like Elizabeth that combine the subtle hope of Texas sunsets with the melancholy of clinging to the disappearing strands of nostalgia that tie her to her husband Roy. Ms. Stein as the sassy Hattie is a one-woman gang, dominating the entire stage, skillfully hitting the comedic beats right on time, while also lacing her character with just enough loss (she too is nostalgic for long-lost love) to give it complexity and depth. Just as you begin to wonder where the script is going to go, enter bubbly Baptist and uppity country-club meanie Amy Lee (Sherri DeMarino), who shows up to sell tickets to a pancake breakfast, as well as juicily inform Elizabeth that her husband Roy has been seen with another woman. It is always a joy to watch Ms. Demarino work; her craft is always so tightly commanded, and she has the rare ability to light up the stage with color and energy. Although one of the issues with this script is a somewhat tedious pace (it tends to get bogged down in some areas), Ms. Sheppard was able to overcome much of this by well-designed movement, well thought-out props, and blocking. Together again, Iverson, Stein, DeMarino, and Sheppard once more proved to be a powerful combination.

In the second play, Lone Star, brothers Roy (JP Paré) and Ray (Sagre Strutzman) are spending another Friday night pounding beers at the local bar. Intoxicated and taking a break out back of the bar, Roy is rehashing his glory days spent with his friend Wayne Wilder in Roy’s treasured 1959 pink Thunderbird.

Paré once again turns in an impeccable, journeyman-like performance as Roy. Despite his outward cowboy bravado, Paré brilliantly daubed Roy’s exterior with the dark colors that have incubated in the giant hole that has been left from his service in Vietnam. As Roy complains that Maynard has changed, Paré flaunts his seasoned talent by carefully unraveling his character, showing it is really he that has changed — the town is pretty much the same.

Due to the depressive undercurrents, as well as the heavy, somewhat overwrought character of Roy, Lone Star runs the danger of falling into a morose affair. This was blithely rescued by the strong performance of Sagre Strutzman. Mr. Strutzman’s portrayal of Ray was splendid, capturing a gleeful, light, and humorous charm in a bottle, shaking it up and spraying it, when needed, over Paré’s internally tortured Roy. Despite all that has gone wrong, and probably will continue to go wrong, Strutzman and Paré were able to gracefully capture all that really matters, the love of two brothers.

One of the highlights of the show for me was when Roy and Ray are joined by the somewhat stiff and almost clueless Cletus (Ian Paré). We mention many times that the Palace is, at its heart, a teaching theater, where kids on the shore get an opportunity to take the stage and learn the craft. Ian Paré is a perfect example of this — starting with small roles, and finally working his way up to more substantial ones. As Cletus, he was flawless, and navigated the subtleties and innuendos of his character with polish and ease. It would be so easy to turn the role of Cletus into a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out. Ian was able to balance Cletus’s inherent dorkiness, with just the right amount of pathos, and also a touch of sly selfishness.

When we talk about the great performances in Lone Star, much of the success has to be attributed to the director, Mellisa Stein. She was able to stealthily move through the script, keeping the pace and balance of the ensemble on point, lacing the hilarity with just the right amount of dejection. In both plays, it was quite apparent that the actors trusted their directors implicitly.

One character that deserves special mention is the set. The design by Ms. Sheppard was once again rich and gorgeous, and it captured the true grit of McMurtry’s anti-western motif. At once breezy and fun, it also invoked the desolation and desperation of rural America. Ms. Sheppard has a very special talent, always able to bring a vision of color and light together to create just the right feel, and to give the actors the proper setting to execute their craft.

As always, these performances are the result of intricate teamwork between the cast and crew. The costumes by Sandy Mayer were spot on, and Kevin Schwenk’s make-up artistry exact. Sometimes it’s a thankless job, but the work up in the light booth by Sandy Esposito was flawless and professional.

So much work, time, and dedication goes into these performances, yet it is truly a labor of love. The cast, crew, and directors should be commended for all they have done, bringing their unique talents to bear so that these great plays could come to life on the Palace stage. It was a grand success, and a great way to start the theatrical season, as well as propel us into our favorite time of year: Christmas in Cape Charles.



Comments are closed.