They were once known as “the little superstars for Jesus.” Now the grown Blaylock Sisters are an atheist former stripper, a mental institution patient who once strangled her ex-lover, and a Vlogger who gives scripture-based advice on her “Good Christian Women” show after making love to her comatose husband upstairs. How they each got from Point A to Point B has much to do with Gospel music legend, Ditty Blaylock, the mother of these three who could easily give Mama Rose or even Mommie Dearest a run for her money. Welcome to Del Shores’ latest equally hilarious and heart-touching exploration of the Southern women of his youth in a world premiere This Side of Crazy that he both wrote and now directs for New Conservatory Theatre Center in a production that brings tons of howling laughs before turning on the faucet for a few sloppy tears (bless your heart).
Rachel, known as “Big Sis,” lives in Ditty’s house where Rachel constantly hears her mom complain how loud and disgusting she is while having “carnal relations with that corpse upstairs. Ditty also rails hourly how her life is now so unhappy because of how much her three children have disappointed her (while adding quickly to Rachel, as if a major complement, “You are the least of my disappointments”). In between the occasional hugs, the two spend much of their time together bickering, with Rachel particularly upset when her mom plays her thrice-weekly, Russian-Roulette game with a pistol without its cartridge inserted. (“It helps me know I have an early exit if I need it,” she wryly says.) Cheryl Smith plays Rachel, the devout Christian advisor to lonely women on the Internet who in a sweet, Kentucky drawl assures them that their Mommies and Daddies “push your buttons because they installed them.”
Christine Macomber commands the stage and in many ways the entire evening as Ditty, gliding about her Southern-comfy household in her flowing, airy dresses decorated in motifs ranging from gaudy flowers to red, plump Mexican peppers. Much of the time she moves with arms poised to point her direction forward – all as if she were in a 1920s silent movie and providing the camera her best profile and face. But as much as she loves to live in the glory of her past, she also loves better to complain in a voice that lifts and swings with a melodic, scratchy tone – always trying to inflict a little more guilt on the one daughter who is there to listen. And perpetually she sighs in variations of, “I am so tired … I feel I have been sent for and am too tired to go.”
Neither Rachel or Ditty is all that happy with their lives together – something Ditty reminds her daughter several times a day as she reminisces about her “sweet” girls’ childhoods that she insists were full of happiness and that Rachel assures her definitely were not. The uneasy equilibrium they and Rachel’s comatose husband, Jude, have created over the past twenty-five years comes to an explosive end when Ditty announces that the Gospel Music Television network wants to honor her with a star-studded nationally televised celebration of her “fifty years of creating and singing songs for Jesus.” That in itself is fine with Rachel, but when Ditty goes on to say that the producer’s one condition is that the Blaylock Sisters must reunite for one last heavenly trio together – with Ditty adding she has already sent blank $5000 checks to the other two only to be signed if they show up at the house – good Christian Rachel erupts into a potty-mouth explosion. Rachel has no desire to see sisters who have been absent for a quarter century and who each bring back memories she does not want to confront face-to-face.
But $5000 speaks loudly; and both Bethany and Abigal arrive home, ready to claim their checks’ signatures and to sing one more time for momma. The reunion is far from heavenly; and for us as an audience, that means the fun has just begun.
Amy Meyers is the slim, trim, and very fit Bethany who explains, “Pole dancing and running keep the ol’ body thin.” She is quite open about her atheism – which Ditty wants to believe “she is just going through a phase” – but being a lesbian is the part of her she is keeping quiet. Her Bethany is high energy, edgy, and more big city than the rest of her family; and she admits, “My mind leaps about like an Easter bunny … just this side of crazy.”
Abigal, on the other hand, prefers sitting alone curled protectively in a chair on the front porch, nervously smoking a cigarette and mostly avoiding the family. Alison Whismore quickly paints a woman who has in fact been institutionalized for many years and kept on calm-inducing medication; yet at the same time, her eyes and taut features indicate she carries within her pain and memories she needs to release in order to be healed.
Del Shores has written and directs a show that for the first half l is ike a bizarre TV sitcom, with our laughter subbing very well for the missing laugh track. However, there is a point in the second act of the two hour, forty minute evening (including one intermission) that comedy takes a back seat to a family drama that surprises us with its serious tones and heart-touching effects. The playwright/director turns this satire about Southern life into a mirror that asks each of us to remember the tough times in our own family when the hard-to-say, even the impossible-to-say things needed to be said. What we see and hear cannot help but jar some memories – both sad and happy – of dinner table confrontations that have happened in more than just a few of our lives with parents, siblings, and/or other family members.
Along with a fabulous cast of four, a creative team superb helps make the evening memorable in every respect. Kate Boyd has designed a two-level, multi-room set with furniture and an old piano that probably were bought when the adult sisters were all “little superstars,” all lit with changing times of day and family moods by Patrick Toebe. Tom O’Brien has populated the set with props from a pink, knitted afghan; grandma’s crocheted doilies; and pictures aplenty of both Jesus and the Blaylock family. The sound design of Kalon Thibodeaux includes scene changes featuring stars like Dolly crooning country-church hymns with words like “If you’re trying to reach heaven, you talk to Jesus … every day.” Finally, for what they do for Ditty alone, Wes Crain and David Carver-Ford deserve many hurrahs for their costumes and wigs, respectively.
As with most world premieres, probably before the second production there will need to be a few edits, perhaps shortening a bit the initial time we spend with just Ditty and Rachel. But overall, there is still hardly a moment to catch one’s breath between hee-haw laughter in the beginning and watchful attention as the sisters and mama come to the altar in the second act to confess some sins and seek forgiveness.
Rating: 4 E
This Side of Crazy continues through October 20, 2019 on the Decker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.
Photos by Lois Tema