Directed by Daniel Zimbler
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?” – Thomas Wolfe, “Look Homeward Angel”
Being strangers in a strange land and being forever alone haunt the six intriguing characters in Elisabeth Gray’s “Southern Discomfort” currently playing the Huron Club at the SoHo Playhouse. Their stories illuminate the ennui and discomfit of a people who somehow lost a significant piece of their history and culture in the Era of Reconstruction following the America Civil War.
Prison-pent, Ms. Gray’s characters are not only lonely and construct a variety of tactics to address their loneliness; these memorable characters who are based on actual Southerners Gray has met and known in her years growing up in the South are also abused and abashed and adept at sublimating the depths of their considerable emotional pain. With the change of a costume and the modulation of her voice’s timbre, Ms. Gray portrays the characters she creates with a remarkable degree of ethos and pathos.
Ninety-one year old Penelope Weaver is nursing home bound (prison-pent) and suffering from dementia. Her stories (“The Mind Odyssey” and “The Homecoming”) reflect not only her personal difficulties processing reality; her stories serve as extended metaphors for the dementia and racism of a region of the United States and, indeed, the dementia and racism of an entire nation which seems to be losing its way and forgetting its equal rights mission.
In her second story, Penelope thinks Josh is her “daddy.” In fact, Josh Robinson Riddle is the nineteen year old who volunteers at Penelope’s nursing home when not working the Dixie Gun Show with the father who earlier in life shot off Josh’s right hand during a Civil War battle reenactment. As readily as Josh is able to forgive his father for an act which seems to have been mean-spirited and intentional, Josh is incapable of forgiving the intentionality and inherent mean-spiritedness of war.
Uncomfortably stacked between Penelope’s bookend stories of sadness, are Julia Hanover’s disturbing story of why her eyes are not aligned (“Crooked”), Jonny Stutts story of love’s labor lost (“Big Jim’s Tow and Go”), Cheri Kane’s story of affirmative action gone awry in a local historical society (“Olive Branch Mississippi Women’s Historical Society”), and sixty-three year old William Ernest Fells’s (“Gymnasium Eulogy”) farewell to his wife. After years of a contentious and unfulfilling marriage and a seemingly loveless life with Louanne, mechanical engineer William remembers his wife after she commits suicide with one of the tools of her trade – a curling iron in her bathtub. Luanne had told William he was “the kind of person that makes you want to be dead.” William wonders mechanically, “How two people end up so lonely together?”
This is the question for William, for all the characters in “Southern Discomfort” and, by extension, for all humankind. How precisely does racism, sexism, homophobia (and other issues of race and gender) “end us up” so lonely together on this planet? Why would a father shoot off his son’s hand? Why would a mother press down so heavily on her pre-natal daughter that her child’s eyes were not level? Why would it take eight years for an African-American (Cheri Kane strives to be politically correct) to be inducted into membership in an otherwise all-white women’s historical society?
Ms. Gray’s touching and often disturbing stories of life in South and North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia transcend regionalism and cultural bias. Indeed, her stories are replete with rhetorical strategies that make a sustainable argument that racism, sexism, homophobia, fear, and doubt transcend borders and boundaries of all description. And the playwright’s brilliant portrayals of these characters challenge her audience to make rich and deep connections to their stories, their attempts to cope, and their endeavors to build new futures.