The Fundamental Question 

Rhubarb Theatre explores the excesses of Southern Christianity

White trash and religion are not strange bedfellows. In fact, they coexist quite comfortably at the Darkhorse Theater.

White trash and religion are not strange bedfellows. In fact, they coexist quite comfortably at the Darkhorse Theater, where Rhubarb Theatre’s double bill of one-acts, under the well-modulated direction of Julie Alexander, takes an entertaining look at some of Southern Christianity’s off-putting excesses and colorful characters.

The primary piece here is Peter Maloney’s Last Chance Texaco, set—as near as you can discern—in Brazos County in east central Texas. A New Yorker named Ruth (Helia Rethmann) has a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and barely makes it into a service station. She finds an agreeable young lady named Cissy (Ree Merrill) willing to help her out, and as the tire gets patched they begin to share about their lives. Ruth has serious baggage—she’s on her way to California after recently undergoing an abortion—while Cissy’s lone issue appears to be an elusive Harley-riding boyfriend.

Western swing wafts atmospherically in the background and the two become more acquainted, but the vibe shifts dramatically with the entrance of Cissy’s mother, Verna (Trish Crist), a disheveled, disputatious, housecoat-wearing harridan who eyes strangers with suspicion and renders snap judgments way too easily. Verna’s also got a mean fundamentalist streak, and when she learns of Helen’s female trouble, she minces no words in expressing her moral outrage.

The conversation moves along, however, and, to Verna’s discomfort, into an area of family life that makes Helen’s problems seem almost tame by comparison. Cissy’s story of fatherly abuse and sadism, dramatically reenacted, strips the facade off the countrified plainness of Maloney’s initial setup, exposing Verna’s own Achilles’ heel as wife and mother and drawing the viewer into a culminating segment of very taut theater.

Merrill’s performance is cleverly yet subtly executed—an appealing blend of girlish charm and sad-eyed experience. Rethmann, meanwhile, is very credible as the dispirited Eastern sophisticate way out of her element. Best of all is Crist, who proves yet again what fine character acting is all about. Her sharp drawling voice cracks the air like a whip, and she stomps around with a jittery pathos, alternating wild-eyed biblical pronouncement with simpleminded and comically mundane concerns.

Richard Sparkman has designed an effectively realistic garage set, replete with pinup babes and decrepit relics of the car repair culture, while Jason Schuster adds some nicely understated lighting effects.

Last Chance Texaco is bookended by the two scenes that make up Carol Caldwell’s new piece First and Second Timothy. A screenwriter and the author of 2006’s surprise theater hit My Secret Weapon, Caldwell is a sociopolitical and media-conscious animal, and satire is a prime arrow in her quiver. Her televangelist figure, played with appropriate fanaticism by Lane Wright, launches into one of those gently chiding versions of a fire-and-brimstone speech—the kind any conservative Christian preacher might deliver on a bright Sunday morning at the local church. Wright even brings a “parishioner” down from the audience, a shy fellow who humbly testifies to his participation in Hurricane Katrina clean-up.

After exploiting the earnest young man, Rev. Timothy determinedly continues with his sermonizing—on the wages of sin and the Bible’s role in helping us avoid it. Yet the pastor’s piety and self-assuredness are zapped at the conclusion—we won’t reveal how—while he churlishly invokes the fallen careers of such iconic forerunners as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.

First and Second Timothy is thoughtful and humorous, a solid companion piece to the evening’s main event.

Not so obvious artReligion and Rubber Ducks—a recently concluded bill of three short plays hosted with stylish enthusiasm by painter/designer Veta Cicolello and her husband, musician Theo Antoniadis, at their converted auto-garage art space Ovvio Arte, at 425 Chestnut Street—marked an auspicious return to the Nashville theater scene by writer Joseph Giordano.

Giordano used to mount his angular and/or fanciful playlets and one-man shows with some regularity at Ken Bernstein’s Bongo After Hours Theatre, though recently the author, whose upbeat exterior masks decidedly sardonic thoughts, had been noticeably absent from the scene. Giordano’s recent chance meeting with Tennessee Rep associate Lauren Shouse—who says hanging out in bars is wasted time?—spawned this felicitous collaboration. The newer Giordano works, while still rooted in his characteristic sketch-comedy mode, exhibit marked maturity, and director Shouse staged them with both energy and a keen eye for the specifics that maximize textual impact.

The opener, “Simply the Best,” featuring Sarah Looney and Eric Williams, is a wry if repetitive concept piece. “The Day the Duck Came Back,” with fine performances by Jon Royal and Kahle Reardon, offers marvelous commentary on both the glory and futility of the notion of romantic permanence. The capper, “The Plan,” enacted by Royal, Andrew Kanies and Reardon (as a recorder-playing Holy Spirit), is what might be termed classic Giordano, as God himself cagily outlines for a skeptical Christ the Son the rationale for the whole, you know, redemption thing.

Antoniadis handled the technical aspects of the production, and all lighting and sound cues worked efficiently in what is a charmingly alternative venue that aims for multipurpose artistic use. (And pay no attention to the noise from passing freight trains or the fireworks from Greer Stadium. Ambient sound can be exciting, if you allow it to be.)

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