Theater Review: An Uneven “Texas Trilogy”
There are some fine moments in Re:Group Theatre’s production of the epic A Texas Trilogy, but there are also many limitations.
A Texas Trilogy, by Preston Jones. Directed by Allie Mulholland. Staged by Re:Group Theatre at McAlpin Hall 165 W 86th St, New York, New York, through August 24.
By Paul Dervis
Preston Jones belongs in that class of Southern playwrights that found a national audience in the ’70s. Marsha Norman, Horton Foote, and Beth Henley all broke through at about the same time. Foote had written the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird ten years earlier, but he was relatively unknown to the New York theatregoing audience. Jones seemingly came out of nowhere. Just a few years before the 1976 Broadway debut of his A Texas Trilogy he was working as the Managing Director of a small theater in Dallas.
But fame was fleeting for Jones. He died in 1979 after undergoing an operation for a bleeding ulcer. Unlike his contemporaries, he had passed from the public consciousness and his plays were rarely staged. The Re:Group Theatre in New York has decided to change that: they are staging all three full length plays in rep with a marathon performance today, Saturday, August 23.
But are they doing Jones a service?
Well, there are some fine moments in these productions, but also many limitations. To start, McAlpin Hall is a space with just God-awful acoustics. Voices are bouncing everywhere and every which way, making it difficult to follow the dialogue. And the lighting is spartan, creating clearly unintentional shadows and a deadly flattening of the set and characters. The set pieces are utilitarian at best and must double for all three plays.
As for the cast, well, let’s say it is distinctly uneven. The Re:Group ensemble is made up of a blend of union and non-union actors: some of the performances are quite affecting, while others are about as involving as watching paint dry. Such is life for the many small theaters of New York.
All three pieces center on Bradleyville, a small town in West Texas. The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia takes place at a gathering of a men’s club, an offshoot of the KKK. The membership once numbered in the tens of thousands; now it is rapidly approaching extinction — there are only seven left. It is 1962 and if they can’t find new, younger bodies the bigoted club won’t see 1963. But these aging racists can’t agree on anything except getting drunk. As the evening progresses, they start losing members rather than gaining them. The night disintegrates into a heated shouting match, and therein lies the elemental problem with the production. Many in the cast, uninterested in modulation, yell through the show’s ninety minutes. Ted Morgan, as Red Grover, is the one exception, his subtle, contemplative moments are a joy to watch amid the high decibel chaos.
Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander is about a young woman with dreams far greater than the confines of Bradleyville, but she can’t help but make choices that immure her in her tiny hometown. Set between 1953 and the early ’70s, the play shows us how Lu Ann evolves from a vivacious high school cheerleader into a disillusioned divorcee who spends her evenings alone in the local bar. She can’t stop marrying men who keep her stuck in Bradleyville. When she is finally free of the guys, her mother, a nurse, is incapacitated by a stroke and Lu Ann becomes her caretaker. In the final scene Lu Ann is visited by her high school sweetheart, whom she left for an older truck driver. Her old boyfriend has, in fact, seen the world, a world she too could have travelled had she not made the choices she did. Adrianne LaValley plays the adult Lu Anne, swinging nicely from the bombastic to the broken. Bridget Gabbe takes turns as the young Lu Ann and, in a later scene, as her daughter. The actress fills the stage with hope and promise. This part of A Texas Trilogy far and away receives the superior treatment from Re:Group Theatre.
The final chapter in Jones’s opus is The Oldest Living Graduate. It is 1962 and ancient Col. Kinkaid is to be feted by his old military school: he is the last surviving member of the first graduating class, 1905. But over the years he has turned into a cantankerous old lout; he energetically rails against everyone and everything. It is only in Kinkaid’s quiet moments that he expresses his true feelings — frustration at lost youth and missed loves. John Lenartz goes so over-the-top playing this character that he loses the man behind the gnarly mask. Lenartz has performed in a number of Broadway and off-Broadway houses, so it could be he had problems adjusting his performance to the size of the hall. However, Rick Schneider and Tish Brandt (as Kinkaid’s son and daughter-in-law), are quite powerful as they flesh out the sorrow and desperation of this angst-ridden couple.
The Re:Group Theatre has given itself a noble mandate. The ensemble takes its name from the original Group Theatre, the most daring of New York’s ’30s stage troupes. The legendary gathering spawned such influential talent as directors Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, as well as playwrights Clifford Odets and Irwin Shaw. Re:Group Theatre produces scripts that have a connection (sometimes tangential) to its historic namesake. Dramatist Jones was discovered and represented by Audrey Wood, a mega-agent with deep ties to the Group Theatre.
Re:Group Theatre has committed itself to a provocative and challenging concept. Here’s hoping that future productions are more successful at delivering the goods.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for hs work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.