Upon entering the auditorium before a performance of Jane Shepard's new comedy Ducks' Crossing, the first thing that was immediately apparent was the exquisite level of detail Heather Dunbar's dilapidated pool-hall setting displays. The sloping pool table made up like a rumpled bed, the mismatched bar stools and tables, the terrific graphics on the walls, the sign with missing letters hanging over the room, and the overall atmosphere of grungy but comfortably familiar coziness struck just the right note. Particularly appropriate was the sign with the missing letters: Parthanon Poo_ _ Ha_ _. Those missing L's told a complete story unto themselves: they not only set the right atmosphere, they also accurately described just what is missing from Shepard's underdeveloped script: logically literate lunacy.
Shepard tries so hard to make Ducks' Crossing a warm, affectionate portrait of southern eccentricity. But her cheerful, if miscalculated, tendency to throw every southern/country cliché in the book into the mix negated any sense of purpose the evening might have had had her writing been more focused. She approaches with a scattershot, shoot-from-the-hip style that rarely takes into account what has gone on before or what comes next. Wonderfully funny threads of ideas are spun out but unravel so quickly that in the end, when everything resolves rather quickly and patently, all that is left is the impression of a gnarled knot of missed opportunities. Shepard also takes a condescending view of her character's eccentricities, giving the comedy a nastier edge than she probably intended. Despite Jane Hamburg's fast-paced, completely professional production and the Herculean efforts of the outstanding cast, whatever laughs were present (and there were quite a few) left the uncomfortable feeling that comes from laughing at someone rather than with them.
But the cast was an outstanding, endearing bunch, and brazenly leading the pack was George R. Sheffey. His comically heartfelt performance made his clichéd, irredeemably nasty bubba character fresh, funny, and surprisingly sympathetic. Right behind him were the delightful Tom Johnson as Scrumpy, a not-so-simple simpleton, and Casey Stewart Lindley, an alluring ball of fire as Minnie, the dreamy, much-put-upon owner of the pool hall. Mark Watson wisely underplayed all of the Elvis influences of his character, Scrumpy's goofy uncle Skud, and Carolyn Popp brought a welcome, no-nonsense elegance to her role as a lady judge with an improbable name that Shepard made far too much of. As Skud's older sister Twila, Anna Ewing Bull brought the house down with the evening's only genuinely funny line: "Every time I see head cheese, it makes me want to run home and check on the kids" - would that more of Shepard's lines were on that level of zany sophistication.
If director Hamberg relied a little too much on special effects (which were nevertheless quite impressive) as well as glib sit-com conventions, the evening's energy never lagged. And thanks to the terrific work of the designers, there was always something that amused, startled, or impressed, from Dunbar's extraordinary set to Joanne Haas's tacky but witty costumes to Aaron Spivey's colorfully warm lighting.
It's just too unfortunate that all of this professional élan was at the service of a script that just wasn't up to all of the talent and attention that were showered upon it. Finding humor in humanity's eccentricities has always been a mainstay in comedy, from Moliére (think anything) to Kaufmann and Hart (think You Can't Take It With You) to television (think I Love Lucy or even Cheers.) But making fun of them is just plain mean, no matter how much warmth is intended or how well it is has been done.
(Also featuring Katharine Gooch, G.R. Johnson, and Jon Krupp.)
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita