Julia Mitchell (left) is Mona, Eleanor Mason Reinholdt (center) is Sissy and Candice M. Milan is the mysterious Joanne in California Conservatory Theatre’s production of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Photo by Patrick Tracy.
(opened Jan. 25, 2007)
A group of friends gathers at a small-town Texas reunion to untangle the knots of the past. One of the friends raises her Lone Star beer bottle in a toast.
“To James Dean,” she says. “Long live the dead.”
The dead, the missing, the transformed and the crazy all receive equal stage time in Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, now at San Leandro’s California Conservatory Theatre.
If Graczyk’s drama is known for anything other than its cumbersome title, it’s as a minor 1982 film directed by Robert Altman and starring Cher, Kathy Bates and Karen Black.
If a Sam Shepard Western somehow got mashed up with Steel Magnolias, the result might be something like Jimmy Dean, an enjoyable mess of a play that grazes potent subjects ranging from gay rape to Hollywood delusion to breast cancer. There are even attempts to explore transgender issues, female bonding and loss of faith.
As they say in Texas, boy howdy, that’s a lot of territory to cover in a two-hour play. But Graczyk manages to give the dusty drama a little weight amid the lurid details.
Director Linda Piccone never lets the pace lag as she unfurls the story of the Disciples of James Dean, a group of teenagers in McCarthy, Texas, a town not far from Marfa, where James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson filmed Giant in 1955.
Mona, the leader of the Disciples, is Dean crazy. She got to be an extra in some of the Giant crowd scenes, and the sad thing is that experience turns out to be the high point of her life.
Twenty years after Dean’s death on Sept. 30, 1955, the Disciples are reuniting at the near-decrepit town’s dingy 5 & Dime (effective set by Ric Koller, lighting by Malcolm Carruthers).
Mona (Julia Mitchell) never left McCarthy, and neither did the vivacious Sissy (Eleanor Mason Reinholdt). Both women still hang out with the God-fearing 5 & Dime owner, Juanita (Mary Gibboney).
Turn-out for the reunion is disappointing, with only three out-of-town visitors: rich and sassy Stella May (Monica Cortes Viharo), always-pregnant Edna Louise (Heidi Wolff) and mysterious Joanne (Candice M. Milan), whom no one can quite place.
The action shifts back and forth between 1975 and 1955, with Danielle Perata, Kerry Wininger and Sean Grady (left with Mitchell) playing younger versions of the Disciples.
The actors keep the melodrama to a minimum _ a mercy given Graczyk’s tendency toward twangy, often purpleish prose.
Reinholdt goes even further and finds a damaged, compassionate soul under Sissy’s bravado. Viharo’s strong comic instincts make the most of an underwritten role, and the younger actors are all excellent.
Mitchell handles the difficult role of Mona well and connects to the character’s paralyzing fear of death, an undercurrent that threatens to transform Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean from a pulpy soap opera into a serious drama.