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BWW Review: Loss and Laughter and Stirred Memories in Jerre Dye's SHORT STORIES at Voices of the South

People shuttle back and forth at an airport, dragging their luggage behind them. A preoccupied "Rider," texting away, impatiently boards an uber cab as his Indian driver eagerly greets him -- and enthuses that they were almost destined to meet. As the passenger, initially annoyed at the driver's prattling, hopes in vain for silence, the driver recalls a seemingly unrelated memory from his childhood; that memory recalled then stirs within the Rider a like memory; and if you have ever experienced the loss of a parent, you, too, become a part of their connection. Thus, "Uber," the short piece that opens Jerre Dye's SHORT STORIES at VOICES OF THE SOUTH,, becomes, as "Tom" in Tennessee Williams' THE GLASS MENAGERIE might call it, a "memory play."

Mr. Dye is very much a local color writer, capturing the language and character of his Mississippi origins; yet, these so-called stories are redolent with poetry, for he is also an Imagist: Probably no local playwright I have recently experienced has such a knack for immediately establishing a connection with his audience through language -- a young gay man sees Jesus as "a thin Grizzly Adams," a housewife's domain exudes "an Amway cleanliness," an interloper who doesn't quite fit is "a carpetbagger in flip flops, a "white trash" father is described in terms of "Brylcream and yellow teeth." There is an abundance of this kind of surprising, fresh language in the stories that follow -- sometimes used for a poignant effect; sometimes, as in the third piece, for sharp-edged humor. I like the way in which all these plays are set against a stark, white, practically bare stage; it's as if we have a blank sheet of paper in front of us and all that colorful language paints the backdrops for us. It's almost, too, reminiscent of a piece of Classical music, with its four movements paced differently and yet interrelated by threads of experience. For example, the first and last piece (the haunting "Do You Love Me?") open and close the evening with a reflection of love and loss, while "Two or More" -- the third "movement," the kind of "scherzo"-- serves as a release valve with its wicked sense of humor.

All of the stories are high in quality. The aforementioned "Uber" is admirably streamlined and startles us with the u-turn it takes (the driver's belief that he is destined somehow to pick up the Rider is affirmed by the playlet's end). The second (and probably my favorite for its scope and inventiveness) is "Jesus and Mrs.Stone." A young adult opens a box containing a cassette player and tapes, and as he plays music, the memory of his younger self appears, dressed identically and playing the same music. There is a startling double vision of Present dancing and singing with Past. In the story that follows, a young man, feeling isolated in his small town because of his homosexuality, clings to the image of "Jesus" for more than spiritual reasons and then is drawn to the outsiders who have moved into the neighborhood (remember "Somewhere That's Green," warbled by the hapless heroine in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS? This is a Mississippi variation on that.) The mother of this misfit tribe is a Chablis-swilling "Mrs. Stone," but she is no Donna Reed (who was also "Donna Stone" on that very 1950's treacly sitcom). These characters bond in much the same way as the oddballs in Carson McCuller's MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, and as such assure us that being different isn't always bad. The insipid "chorus" of small-minded conformists who weave in and out of the play find a "voice" in the satiric "Two or More," which manages to roll its eyes at the gossipy nature of small-minded people while at the same time showing an odd affection for them. Enacted by Steve Swift and Cecelia Wingate (who have performed so well together so often), these two characters reminded me of the small-minded barber in Ring Lardner's "Haircut." Their conversation about reprobate-turned-preacher "Billy Wayne Munson" reveals as much about them as it does him. When Billy Wayne's wife (who has cut short her ascent up the educational ladder -- Itawamba Junior College -- to marry B.W.) is asked in a grocery store what is responsible for his transformation, she says, "Jesus," then rolls her shopping cart off to the cantaloupes. All of this is played for laughs and succeeds deliriously. The last piece, however, differs drastically in tone -- and is probably the most affecting: "Do You Love Me?" is a Son's tender recollection of his lost "Mom." His mother always seemed to be asking "Do You Love Me?" Sometimes that question is posed in different voices, with this word or that stressed to effect a different mood. Sometimes no words are there, but the Mom's expression asks the question all the same. The variations on that one question are almost like a jazz artist's reinterpretation of the same melody. Yet, the answer is always the same. While it's a sad and wistful and tender piece, it's not without a sweet sense of humor ("Mom" is like "Mrs. Stone" in the second story, relegated by time and convention to have boundaries set for her, but instead of turning to cigarettes and drink, she dons her Mary Kay "face" and becomes mistress of her domain).

The cast here is uniformly excellent, and while I was already familiar with talents like Wingate and Swift, Anne Marie Caskey, and Alice Berry, young David Couter and Reece Berry deserve special mention. Mr. Couter, in particular, becomes the author's "voice," and he is most impressive. I look forward to seeing more of him on our local stages. Mr. Dye has lovingly directed, and Tiffany Hall McClung has created some inventive sound effects (I particularly like what she does when "Mr. Stone" briefly appears and casts an unwelcome shadow on his family's household). Through November 22.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)