By: Jul. 04, 2015
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You have to wonder why it took someone so long to bring Del Shores' The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife to the Nashville stage. After all, the play opened to widespread acclaim in Los Angeles in 2003 and was made into a movie in 2011 (Blues for Willadean).

But how lucky are Nashville audiences that we now have the KB Productions' rendition of the play - which may best be described as riveting, searing and intense (and those are just the adjectives at the top of the list) - to leave us in this state that we find ourselves in after opening night? Directed with commitment, focus and a theatrical flair by First Night Star Award-winning Clay Hillwig, Trailer Trash Housewife features superb performances from a handful of local actors already recognized as good, but whom had never had the opportunity to tackle such startling and heartrending material as found in Shores' play.

Producers L.T. Kirk and Donald Powell, once again exhibiting their passion for theater with this immersive production (the experience begins in the lobby and continues throughout the two and a half hours of onstage action and in-the-seats camaraderie among stage devotees and theatrical colleagues - has there been a starrier opening night of Nashville theater this season? Quite frankly, no.), deliver a thoughtfully mounted show that is as impressive as any we've seen in Music City in some years. With Hillwig at the helm and with an ensemble of actors who seem ideally cast in their roles, Trailer Trash Housewife is destined to be discussed and dissected among the theaterati for some time to come.

With the playwright in the audience for opening night (Shores will be performing his new one-man show, SINgularly Sordid, at the Darkhorse Theater on Sunday night), along with a sold-out audience (how cool is it to see the Darkhorse filled to the brim with theater-goers?) and every theater critic in town, the cast had its work cut out for them, to be certain. And, boy howdy, did they ever deliver...

Shores' play, which focuses on the titular housewife Willadean Winkler (played to heart-stopping perfection by Cat Arnold) and her relationship with her mentally and physically abusive husband JD (Andrew Strong, in a performance that is almost too real to watch), is heartbreakingly genuine, sometimes too much so, making it difficult and discomfiting for the audience. Willadean's story (which, unless you are a soulless automaton, is likely to elicit tears and a feeling of disgust) may not be what one expects from Shores, whose raucously funny plays have delighted and bedeviled Southern theater-goers for years now. Yet, in all of his work, we've seen his heart fully on display and so we shouldn't be surprised that we can be so moved by a fictional, if thinly veiled, world he creates to show us the horror of that which lies beneath the surface.

Hillwig directs his actors with an even-handedness that renders the story more compelling and more disturbing. Pulling no punches, while punctuating the action with a heightened sense of theatrics and an oftentimes lighter touch to leaven the script's dramatics with humor, Hillwig and his cast make you forget that you're watching a play. Instead, you feel trapped in an uneasy, uncomfortable drawing room comedy/drama from which you hope to escape, but to which you are fatally drawn in the desire to see justice served for poor, sweet Willadean, her absent children and all those around her - even JD, whose demons are just as apparent as the damnable life he shares with the woman he claims to love so deeply, yet he dehumanizes with every word (both screamed at her and left unspoken) in those moments when you are most likely to feel the palpable tension between the two.

Arnold's performance as Willadean at first seems revelatory until we remember her recent portrayal of old-maid schoolteacher Rosemary Sidney in Circle Players' production of William Inge's Picnic (for the sake of full disclosure, I directed her in that show, so I've known first-hand what she is capable of onstage), in which she delivered the dramatic goods to full effect. But here, as an abused wife seen quaking in her shoes while awaiting the arrival of her husband for a dinner of tuna casserole and green beans, she calls upon everything she carries in her actor's quiver to take us all down a dark tunnel of repressed hopes and barely simmering dreams that have been dashed by the presence in her character's life of a real-life bogeyman.

In short, Arnold's breathtaking performance will leave you spent, prompting you to wonder how on earth she can possibly recover from the draining experience of the play every evening. Her performance is startling and beautifully modulated (but, good lord, how much strength must be brought to bear by audience members who want to leap to action in Willadean's defense before she musters enough courage and sheer will to protect herself?), yet somehow free from artifice.

Paired with her in the thankless role of JD, Strong exhibits a ferocity heretofore unexpected from him. As he rages about the couple's mobile home living room and kitchen, he draws upon a previously untapped source of anger and resentment, beating Willadean down forcefully and unrelentingly, spewing hate and prejudice with every word as he lords over cocktail waitress Rayleen (at one time shoving her up against a bar and shoving his fingers roughly up her short-shorts) and next-door neighbor LaSonia (threatening to shoot her brains out and banishing him from the supposed sanctity of his trailer park home).

Perhaps most telling of who Andrew Strong, the individual, is comes during the curtain call when he emerges from backstage, looking beaten down and spent himself after creating the havoc you've just seen. Proud for having lived through the experience, yet obviously troubled by the demons he has had to convey onstage, he deserves every second of applause he rightfully receives.

The play's relentless emotion would be far too much if not for those moments when you are allowed to laugh uproariously at some line delivered with executive speed by LaQuita James as Willadean's best friend LaSonia Robinson, or by Beth Henderson as Rayleen Hobbs, the town pump and all-around good-time girl who launches enough F-bombs to send ISIS back to the 17th century. James is nothing short of delightful, delivering her lines with bravado and an impeccable sense of timing, somehow encapsulating LaSonia's fear and loathing in a single, frozen expression on her face and an intensity in her eyes which shows us what a capable actress she is. Henderson - calm, cool and collected offstage - plays Rayleen with a no-holds-barred sense of excitement that is captivating and stunning. Never before has she shown such range onstage (perhaps hers is the most revelatory portrayal of this production).

Cast as the "Blues Singer," the gorgeous LaToya Gardner serves as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the play's action with musical numbers that are at once fun and frothy, as well as dour and evocative. The other-worldly, perhaps angelic, presence of the Blues Singer also helps to assuage the audience's concern for - and feelings of guilt at witnessing the abuse of - Willadean at the hands of her repulsive husband. She is there, it seems, to offer hope both for Willie and for us since we are bound by the conventions of theater to not offer help to her in the vicious scenes that play out before us onstage.

Much to their credit - and to Hillwig for helping to craft their performances, to Shores for creating such indelible characters and to Kirk and Powell for creating the space in which they are allowed to explore themselves and the people they play - the cast delivers a performance that draws you so deeply into what they are doing that you forget you are watching actors enact a play. Instead, you are flies on the proverbial wall of Willadean and JD's white trash trailer.

The production's set design, though uncredited (construction is by Nashville theater stalwart Joe Stinemetz), provides the perfect backdrop for the play's action, recreating the environs of Mesquite, Texas, to the very letter expressed in Shores' script. Sarina Richardson and Daniel Black's sound and lighting design help to focus one's eyes where they need to be while providing skilled illumination. David Bayer's fight choreography is an essential element to the play's overall success, while Linda Hearn Cameron-Bayer dresses the Blues Singer in regally red refinement: Gardner has never been more elegantly attired onstage.

The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife has but five more performances through next weekend and you really should make every effort to see it. But be forewarned: it won't be easy, it won't necessarily be fun...but you will be so much the better for having witnessed it.

  • The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife. By Del Shores. Directed by Clay Hillwig. Produced by L.T. Kirk and Donald Powell. Presented by KB Productions, at Darkhorse Theatre, Nashville. Through July 11. For reservations and information, go to Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with a longer than promised 15 minute intermission on opening night).


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