BWW Review: Del Shores THIS SIDE OF CRAZY Women Prove to be the Salt of the Earth with Lots of Hot Pepper Underneath
Del Shores was born in Winters, Texas, and raised by his mother, a former high school drama teacher and the quirky members of her Southern Baptist family. He makes no bones about the fact most, if not all, his brilliantly written female characters are based, in part, on real women who populated his early life in small town America. The popular American film director and producer, television writer and producer, playwright and actor is an expert at creating mid-twentieth century lowbrow female characters, salt of the earth Southern women on the surface who bubble with peppery torment beneath the surface, just waiting to explode.
Since 1987, several of his plays have had their World Premiere in Los Angeles, including Daddy's Dyin': Who's Got the Will?, Sordid Lives, and Yellow. And now THIS SIDE OF CRAZY, which Del Shores has written and directs at the Zephyr Theatre for its Los Angeles premiere, carries on the same tradition of a strong-willed, highly religious mother who raised her three very different daughters, each of whom has rebelled against family traditions and society's expectations - until they are called upon to reunite in the family home for some higher purpose.
This time, the family's egotistical mother is Ditty Blaylock (Sharon Garrison, a veteran of numerous Del Shores projects on stage and screen), the most prolific singer in gospel music history who is being honored by "Gospel Music Network." All the stars are aligning for stars to sing Ditty's songs on her TV special, but there is one glitch. Ditty has promised the show's producer a reunion of The Blaylock Sisters, her three adult daughters who were once national sensations called the "little superstars for Jesus."Bobbie Eakes, also a veteran of Del Shores productions, portrays Rachel, the oldest sister, who lives with Ditty and perfectly mimics her mother's love of Jesus on her own online show to great comic effect. Fireworks, and Shores' brand of quirky comedy, begin from the start of the play when Rachel and her comatose husband are engaged in rather noisy "carnal knowledge" in their upstairs bedroom, much to the chagrin of her mother who is trying to watch television downstairs. It is soon made very apparent to us that poor Ditty is at the end of her rope dealing with Rachel's behavior with her husband, who has been laying in their bed, hooked up to IVs and unable to speak or move (except for the one way in which Rachel can still enjoy his presence) for 25 years!
Mother and daughter seem to tolerate each other, at least enough to live in the same house, although if I ever spoke to my mother the way Rachel speaks to hers, I certainly would never be allowed to cross her threshold. But these are tough Southern women who are willing to speak their mind and quote the Bible when it suits their purpose to control each other's attitude and behavior. And all three daughters learned that behavior from the best teacher of all: their mother. And of course, who can better push your buttons than the one who installed them there?
So of course Rachel is furious when she finds out that her baby sister Bethany (Rachel Sorsa who returns to the Del Shores family after playing Kate in Yellow), an atheist and lesbian, and Abigail (Dale Dickey, most recently seen in Barbeque at the Geffen, now in her 17th collaboration with Del Shores), her middle sister, who has "anger issues" and is currently confined to a mental facility, are headed home.And no doubt fans of their childhood recording career are thrilled with the reunion news. But what the public is unaware of is that these complicated sisters have been estranged for over twenty-five years, and that extreme past circumstances (including a husband left in a coma by a jilted sister) seem to make reconciliation impossible. And of course, once reunited, these Southern rebels are ready to reveal secrets the public must never hear, causing tempers to flare and family wounds to be exposed. Handled with so much seemingly natural internal anger and heartbreak, their outbreaks are both starling and totally believable. But if the show must go on, these warring siblings are going to have to come to some sort of agreement, apologize for past behaviors, and agree to work together for the sake of honoring their mother's legacy, at least to the world of her fans. During the explosive scene in which the three sisters sit around the kitchen table and talk out their differences, you could hear a pin drop given the intensity of the scene's emotional pull. And when they finally agree to the reunion, the overjoyed Ditty just might be able to die in peace when the time comes.
In the process of working out their differences, we are treated to moments of great comedy as well as deep hurt and overwhelming sadness, often brought to life by the fabulous cast of four in the wink of an eye thanks to Del Shores masterful way of exposing human emotions so realistically. What audience members are sure to realize is that we are all human beings; flawed and full of sin, which according to Ditty "Is why we need Jesus who died for our sins. After all, if we didn't sin, we wouldn't need him." And then what kind of career would she have had without having anyone to praise through song?
Technical wizardry abounds in the form of such a thoroughly realistic, split-level Southern home, thanks to the amazing, small theater scenic design by Tom Buderwitz. Audience members actually walk through the set to get to their seats, giving you the ability to notice all the family photos and mementos that decorate Ditty's home. In fact, this set could be the family home of all Del Shores plays, given how authentically Southern it is. And of course, there is an older upright piano in the living room upon which Garrison actually plays a song for the sisters to practice singing. And these women can SING, with their harmonies reflecting just how much their fans will be thrilled to hear them together again. Kudos to musical director Blake McIver and sound designer Drew Dalzell, lighting designer Matthew Brian Denman, as well as Shon Le Blanc for his often color-coordinated costume design in the three sisters' favorite colors with Ditty always dressed as her ever-present flashy self, even in her favorite housedress.
THIS SIDE OF CRAZY, written and directed by Del Shores, produced by Emerson Collins and Louise H. Beard, continues on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm & 7pm at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, CA 90069. Tickets are $39, available online at brownpapertickets.com, by phone at (800) 838-3006, with any available tickets sold at the door. Visit www.delshores.com for more information. Get your tickets and be ready to both laugh and cry at the same with these Southern spitfires! Photo credit: Karianne Flaathen