One Man’s Trash …

 

A couple of years back, I attended a wedding in a double-wide trailer.

I shit you not, Kansas City. Even better, it was a borrowed double-wide, lent by the best man so that all assembled might enjoy its roominess — twice the size of the groom’s cozy single — as well as the trampoline and aluminum swimming pool out back.

We drank, of course, and raised some hell, and someone tore up the lawn with a dirt bike, but the highlight hit just before the ceremony started. We crammed into the living-room, carrying on, waiting for the preacher to get to it. Some 10 minutes after the announced start time, that preacher finally found the courage to lift himself from the recliner and ask, “It’s well after 6 now — somebody want to turn off the TV so we can get started?”

Coming as I do from so fine a stock of hobos and hill people, I’m chafed by the way the culture shafts broke-ass white folks. Southerners are jokes, religious nuts or amoral sons of bitches: think Burt in Striptease, Burt in Citizen Ruth or Burt busting up with Loni. Worse still are the positive stereotypes: peddlers of bland tradition or homespun bullshit, à la all of country radio. Or the Burt of Evening Shade.

So I went to The Great American Trailer Park Musical ready to chafe. It would be a sneer from Off Broadway, I assumed, like mullet jokes and “white trash” theme parties. But director Cynthia Levin is smarter than the script, and she also has more heart, which means that the hardscrabble honkies in this surprisingly sweet comedy don’t chafe — in fact, they balm over some of the Burt.

Yes, the show jabs at trailer-park people, the easiest targets in this entire culture. But Levin never forgets that they’re people first and foremost. Sure, they may be gun-toting, marker-huffing people done up in tube tops and sparkly sneakers, and they may say things like “Holy ham sandwiches,” or “Rendezvous? Isn’t that French for fucking?” or “I’ll tell this entire trailer park you faked your alien abduction.” But even the most ridiculous scenes staged by Levin and her talented cast bear trace elements of the empathy and social realism that make the Unicorn our premier theater for plays that actually mean something.

The story would fit on top of a can of Pabst. Pippi, a sex-kitten stripper played with half-naked oomph by Jessalyn Kincaid, shows up at Armadillo Acres, a trailer park in deepest Florida, fleeing her man and looking for a new start. There, she hooks up with Norbert (James Wright), a good-hearted working man hitched to Jeannie (the fantastic Karen Errington), a TV-addicted agoraphobic who has promised Norbert that, for their upcoming anniversary, she’ll finally step outside their trailer for the first time in decades. If you don’t think Jeannie’s sally into the world will result in her catching Pippi and Norbert cheating, I’ve got about two dozen Loretta Lynn songs I should burn you.

All this is narrated by a trio of trailer-park songbirds, led by the towering Cathy Barnett as Betty. They shimmy out like Wal-Mart Ikettes, gorgeous but still remaindered-looking, belting David Nehls’ lyrics and setting us straight about the truth of trailer people. Just minutes into the show, Betty dismisses the term white trash: “Nobody who works on a tan 365 days a year wants to be called white anything.

Barnett’s great, as is much of the cast. As Norbert, Wright talks like a bummed-out Conway Twitty, bringing a smidge of gravitas to a character written as a cartoon but still getting those cartoon laughs. His excitement upon meeting Pippi is infectious, perhaps because it’s difficult not to fall for Kincaid: With her cat’s eyes and heart-shaped face, her shimmering voice and deft comic timing, her arrival burns this trailer park to the ground.

Her rival, though, wins both the man and the show. As the trailer-bound Jeannie, Errington owns this stage like Oprah owns daytime. A great singer who is also an unpredictable comedienne, she boasts a voice of wide clarity and features that she can bunch up into hysterical configurations. She acts as she sings, and she’s winningly tremulous on the verses, but she also shocks-and-awes through diva moments such as the climax of “Flushed Down the Pipes.”

Jon Young’s colorful set and Georgianna Londre’s perfectly hideous costumes are top-notch, and I must applaud the emotion Jeffrey Cady sculpts with his lighting. At one romantic moment, Christmas lights bathe the mobile homes, and I swooned a little.

As much as I savor seeing talent of this caliber lavished on trailer-park lives, I wish that Betsy Kelso’s script were sharper, that the laughs were more consistent and that the full enterprise could somehow lose the last faint whiff of socioeconomic smugness. A more pressing problem is that, despite a couple of highlights, including “Flushed” and the rousing finale, about a third of Niehls’ songs are go-nowhere vamps.

Still, the particulars of this production patch over those problems. Levin’s grounded approach to material that could have been Hee Haw doesn’t just keep the show from grating; she actually manages to throw the best trailer party I’ve been to since that wedding.

Categories: A&E, Stage