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Texas Holds 'Em 

Theater Review: Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star, Middlebury Actors Workshop

If ever a year were rife with resignation, it was 1974. U.S. troops were resigned to have left Vietnam short of victory. President Nixon resigned from office. Ford Pinto drivers were resigned to exploding gas tanks.

In Maynard, Texas, in 1974, at least in playwright James McLure's one-acts Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star, that sense of resignation is as oppressive as the midday sun. Yet in the Middlebury Actors Workshop's (MAW) current production of the plays, running back-to-back as two acts of a full-length work, a sense of hope cuts through the malaise with each laugh -- and there are many.

Using two simple, similar sets -- Laundry and Bourbon's simulates a back porch, Lone Star's the back yard of a bar -- director Melissa Lourie taps a wellspring of talent in her tight-knit troupe. The engaging effect of subtle and not-so-subtle character interplay, like the faux starlight filling the rafters of the Town Hall Theater in Lone Star, succeeds by design. MAW favors plays that are suited to a small ensemble and can be easily mounted. They have chosen well here, as both works derive dramatic thrust from characters essentially sharing stories central to their lives. The actions that once brought excitement to their lives are now just memories. In the conversations that form these plays, characters navigate those memories -- reveling, regretting, clinging and, ultimately, letting go.

In lieu of fast-paced action, a heightened attention to language carries each moment, buoyed by generally good chemistry among the players and some on-the-nose comic timing.

In Laundry and Bourbon, friends Elizabeth (Shannon Bohler-Small) and Hattie (Karen Lefkoe) reminisce about their youth, in particular the double dates they went on in the pink 1959 Thunderbird convertible owned by Elizabeth's boyfriend, now her husband, Roy. But sweet memories are embittered by the fact that Roy and his T-bird have not been seen on the homestead in a couple of days. Hattie consoles Elizabeth but can't help expressing a touch of longing for her own man gone missing -- not her husband but the double-dating boyfriend who jilted her. That man, now a convict whom we never meet on stage, comes to represent the zest for life that seems to have evaporated from the arid landscape of Elizabeth and Hattie's small lives.

No one could accuse these women of living lives of quiet desperation, though. Desperate, maybe. But not quiet -- thanks to Lefkoe's Hattie, who drops in on Elizabeth one sultry afternoon to while away some time away from her kids by getting sloshed. Up to the moment of Hattie's arrival, Elizabeth had been staring across her yard, pining to see the T-bird come up the road. Bohler-Small plays the straight woman to Lefkoe's comic cutup well, though her character takes a while to emerge clearly.

Lefkoe carries the manic mantle confidently in this comedy team, whirling about more dervishly as the bourbon flows, tossing her petite frame about, and rambling on like a woman suffering from a serious lack of grownup company. It falls to Elizabeth to mainly listen, and one soon sees how challenging Bohler-Small's role must be. She has her moments, though, and when the play calls for gravitas, she delivers convincingly, one hand on her hip, the other clenching her drink, her eyes on the horizon.

The drama and comedy intensify with the unannounced arrival of Amy Lee, a country-club wife played by Liza Sacheli. She has dropped by under the pretense of having been sent by her husband, who runs the local appliance store, to deliver an air-conditioner part. However, bad blood simmering between her and Hattie brings the play to a boil with the next round of drinks. Like Bohler-Small's world-weary Elizabeth, Sacheli's Amy Lee takes a few beats to settle into a groove with Hattie. The play sags a little right after her entrance, but the initial stiffness in Sacheli's performance loosens soon enough.

By the time we meet Roy, played by Steve Small, in Lone Star, he's already pretty loose. Sitting on a removed car seat outside Angel's bar, he's working his way through a six-pack of Lone Star beer when younger brother Ray (Harry McEnerny) steps outside to see what Roy's doing. What he's doing is a whole lot of nothing, save keeping the promise he made to himself in the jungles of Vietnam -- he pronounces it "Vitt-nam" -- to get drunk outside Angel's bar. Which he's been doing regularly for two years.

Roy's sleep is haunted by Nam-related nightmares, we learn from Elizabeth in Laundry and Bourbon, but his bigger problem seems to be that the friends who made life such a rowdy good time are either in prison or -- worse -- Oklahoma. As Roy bellows, "Where is everyone?" he is one tough, beer-swillin' sonuvabitch, and the fact that he treats Ray like an idiot diminishes hope for illumination in the exchanges that ensue.

Of the two plays in this production, Lone Star may be the more ambitious. Roy is on an emotional journey of great distance, and he is accompanied by an unlikely spirit guide indeed. But travel that distance he does, thanks to the deep connection conjured by Small and McEnerny. The latter's comic timing is particularly sharp, his laugh lines punching holes in what could otherwise be more dramatic -- even violent -- turns of events. Small turns in a bravura performance as a man trying to dress his wounds with nostalgia and covering the weakling's mask with the bully's.

As in Laundry and Bourbon, a third character -- Cletis, a.k.a. Skeeter, played by Mike Kiernan -- tweaks Roy's volatile temper. Cletis also initiates the action that propels the story's climax. Looking like a body double for Charles Martin Smith's character "Terry the Toad" in the 1973 film American Graffiti, Kiernan serves the play well. Although his stage time is limited and his part relatively small, his presence adds authenticity to both the time period and the constellation of small-town personalities so effectively dramatized in this production.

While a backdrop constellation glimmers overhead in Lone Star, an equally pleasing light radiates from both plays. Each work is a gem in its own right. Set side by side -- and in the sensitive care of the MAW ensemble -- they shine even more brightly.

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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Eskilsen is a freelance writer and Champlain College instructor. He lives in Burlington with his wife and twin daughters, and their dog.


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