KPBS AIRDATE: March 4, 1992
The world is not a very promising place for women, in the eyes of Cajun playwright Julie Hebert. They’re either reined in by a man, by society, by their color or by some powerful self-imposed constraints. They’ve got, metaphorically speaking, a bucketful of problems.
Hebert’s new play has all the right ingredients, all the authentic Cajun spices: a Louisiana setting, regular, working-class white folks and black folks, passion, jealousy, murder, interracial love, black blues and swamp-pop music. Sounds like a tasty treat. But it’s overdone in some spots, underdone in others. And we just don’t walk away with our appetites satisfied.
The performances are fine. Amanda White brings dignity to the role of Ruby, and Natalie Turman is ingenuous as Ruby’s daughter Emerald, but both are stronger singers than actors. T.J. Johnson is a natural as Ruby’s nice-guy would-be beau, Johnny Beaux. Rick Sparks brings a bit of menace to the role of Billy Dupre, the white singer who plays Ruby’s roadhouse club one full-mooned night and turns everyone’s life inside-out. Most affected is his wife, magnificently played by Deborah van Valkenburgh, a woman still mourning her dead child, walking a tightrope above an abyss of depression, insanity, over-medication and emotional abuse. It’s a frightening and finely tuned performance.
But it’s trapped in a melodramatic book and surrounded by music that rarely propels the story forward. We get the feel of hot, rural 1961 Louisiana . We get the steamy sense of a somewhat-seedy black roadhouse called the Bucket of Blood. The set, lighting and costumes look great. Everything is evocative, but nothing grabs you by the throat and drags you into the action. We remain outside, unconnected observers, just as the music, nicely played by the Sugar Kings, stays mostly outside the action, mere entertainment at a roadside retreat, with a pleasantly realistic ensemble of dancers in the background.
Director Sam Woodhouse tries to get inside the heat of Hebert’s many moments. He pushes the story, the actors, the inexorable events. But everything comes up a little bit short, and we remain unmoved. There’s one affecting song, “What’s Shakin’ Me Up,’ that closes the first act. The rest of Mark Bingham’s music is sweet, but forgettable, even some of the recycled old tunes from the fifties and sixties.
Hebert has something to say, and the perfect voice to say it in. But “Ruby’s Bucket” needs further fortification, and integration of the book and music. It taps into a regional heartbeat, but its rhythm should raise your blood pressure.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.