The New Phoenix Theatre production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean opened on Friday.
Even though this story has history, having made a Broadway run and adapted to film with what may have been a stellar cast, I entered Friday with zero familiarity. Arguably, you might quarrel that a fair review of any play would require one to perform a little research, if not have some actual experience with the story, be it from stage, screen, or text. Otherwise, how to gauge its success? Or, you might squabble that going into a play with zero experience with it makes for zero expectations. The production rises or falls on its basic merits as entertainment value.
Either way, Jimmy Dean never makes an appearance. Neither does James Dean. Not really a surprise. Even with zero expectations, a play about pure pork breakfast sausage or 50’s film icons was never anticipated.
It’s basically about broken lives come together. Set in a small town in Texas at, you might guess, a Five and Dime store where not only are sundry goods sold but also coffee shop food and drink at a lunch counter. The set of New Phoenix is meticulously rendered, with throw-back appropriate swivel stools, hanging lights and fan, corded wall phone and yes, a life-sized cut-out of the 50’s heart-throb, James Dean.
The occasion taking place is a meeting of a group of friends who were coming of age when Dean was alive, around the time of his filming of the movie, Giant. The movie had apparently been filmed all those years ago just outside of the town where the play’s action takes place. Those 30 years earlier, this group of friends had formed their own fan club, “The Disciples of James Dean”. They had agreed to meet 30 years later, at the Five and Dime where they had spent much of their adolescence.
Enter the 40-something Mona, played by Lori Haberberger, whose admiration for Dean is extreme. So much so that she’s named her only child Jimmy Dean. In fact, we learn, that from the time of her son’s birth Mona has claimed she was seduced by James Dean himself during the filming of Giant, and that Jimmy Dean is his child.
It’s not true, of course, but you would not know that by Haberberger’s portrayal. She plays the character with a hint of disturbing over-the-deep-end drama that keens us into thinking something is wrong here. Yet everybody knows it but her.
The rest of the characters let it play as a fact of Mona’s life, 30 years in the making. Mona’s mother Juanita, played by Mary Moebius, the God-fearing proprietor of the Five and Dime, chooses to remain blissfully ignorant of the un-truth. The rest of the Disciples have all moved on.
Their comeback to the Five and Dime is lead by Sissy, expertly played by Buffalo theatre mainstay, award-winning actress, Lisa Ludwig. Sissy is, in a word, sassy. And Ludwig plays her with an outstanding command of the stage, dialogue, and physical prowess, complete with an affecting southern accent and swagger.
Nearly matching Ludwig’s stage presence is Kerrykate Abel as the well-to-do Stella May, whose confidence and simple truth wisdom is a fantastically thick disguise of Stella May’s discomfort with her outwardly successful life.
The Disciples are a group of six companions, whose truths and confessions come out across the stage, veiled in uncomfortable lies and long held blissful assumptions about just what those 30 years have meant and what happened and who they came to be, 30 years after James Dean held their fancies.
The play uses flashbacks from those days of the Disciples of Dean – a young Mona being played by relative newcomer Jessie Miller, and a youthful Sissy being played by the accomplished Jamie Nablo. As the young and adult Sissy, Nablo and Ludwig’s command are expertly meshed. The two performances bridge the 30-year gap of the character so convincingly you’d think they were mother and daughter in real life. Sissy’s 30-year gap of young to old is packaged with care by these two stellar performances.
The actual stage flashbacks to 30 years earlier are not quite as seamless. In the opening minutes of the play a flashback occurs and, still establishing a purchase on the play, it presents some unsure footing. That is partly because the flashback mingles the younger actors from 30 years earlier with the very same older actors in the real time of the play, without an obvious visual transition. The first time we see the young Mona, it’s presented as such a matter of fact walk-on that, at first, one might assume she is just another character in the present action of the play.
Whether that’s a matter of stylized storytelling or production limitations — early on it’s bewildering as the present action moves forward. Later in the play it becomes an integral, recurring approach. But early on it takes a little time to gain one’s footing because of it, but once you’re grounded in the story and characters, the impact lessens and the seam closes.
What you’re left with is a sometimes poignant, sometimes raucously fun look at how a group of small town folks reconnect to find their lives diverted, yet remain irrevocably bound by their early years of common ground and truths come to light. The folks at New Phoenix have brought together a group of excellently seasoned performers to the stage, managed by some inventive newcomers managing the stage. Together they bring an altogether vigorous, entertaining show as filled with vibrant performances as it is with uncommon twists.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is two hours with a 15 minute intermission. It runs now through December 21. More information is at https://www.newphoenixtheatre.org