KPBS AIRDATE: January 24, 1996
Actresses are eternally — and justifiably — complaining that there are not enough good, juicy roles for women. Well, at this moment at least, they can’t really gripe. There are no fewer than three shows on San Diego stages that feature women prominently or exclusively. These are not feminist tracts or treatises. They’re much more about the joys of sisterhood and the value of asserting your independence. Though they all lean toward the sentimental, they’re also loaded with laughs.
The most genuinely humorous is “Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling’s 1987 valentine to his late sister, his mother and their friends. Even having seen the 1989 all-star film, it’s easy to get caught up in the down-home humor and humanity of Truvy’s House of Beauté in Chinquapin, Louisiana, and to forget that there’s a heavy-duty, tearjerker ending coming at you.
Up at Moonlight Amphitheater’s new Avo Playhouse, Kathy Brombacher has cast and directed very solidly, and the evening moves along with the jaunty lilt of a country tune.
Speaking of which, there is “Cowgirls,” making its West coast debut at the Old Globe Theatre. It’s a country music confection, like one of those ultra-sweet Southern divinity candies that melts away before you even get to taste it. The flimsy premise of this six-woman musical comedy is an all-’girl’ (as they say), classical trio being erroneously booked into a Rexford, Kansas saloon. Everybody’s life is hanging in the balance, one way or the other, so necessity — and theatrical contrivance — help the melodious longhair triumvirate miraculously, incredibly, turn into country wailers literally overnight.
The most believable part of the whole affair is Rhonda Coullet’s twangy talk and gut-wrenching singing. Her songs are the most tuneful and authentic, too, especially the aching “Time to Come Home.” The rest of the score is cute, sometimes clever, but it won’t touch your achy, breaky heart. The other singers do better in ensemble than solo; the a capella harmonies are spectacular. And the talent of these women, playing multiple instruments in multiple genres, is awesome.
The set and lighting are right fine, and Eleanor Reissa has buoyantly directed and choreographed her lively troupe, which includes composer-lyricist Mary Murfitt and librettist Betsy Howie. If hand-clappin’ and foot-stompin’ are what you favor, just send your extremities to the theater; leave your critical, analytical mind at home.
You might have a few more brain cells firing during “Julie Johnson,” New York playwright Wendy Hammond’s sometimes funny, sometimes poignant coming-out story, currently running at Diversionary Theatre. Director Bill Poore has insisted on dragging the piece into the sludge of melodrama, prolonging every moment and every scene change beyond endurance, and apparently encouraging his actors to go over the top with every beat. But still, Gayle Feldman is centered and believable as the title character, who, in turning away from her narrow-minded, anti-intellectual environment, learns that moving up and coming out can be exhilarating as well as alienating.
The same can be said for the performance of Elizabeth Anderson, whose boisterous best friend is hilarious when she doesn’t push too hard. Touching songs by local singer-songwriter Jessi Benton Jones underline the play’s themes. At least this show has them.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.