Tragedy struck America in 1955 when that beautiful Porsche went careening off the side of the highway, taking with it that teenage heartthrob, James Dean. And the nation was never the same. Particularly not the little town of McCarthy, Texas where the legendary son of Jimmy Dean was raised. Or so the story goes as Greenbelt Arts Center presents Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean by Ed Graczyk. Taking place in a series of present time and flashback moments from 1955 and 1975 respectively, the old Jimmy Dean Disciples are gathered once more to commemorate that 20 year anniversary of Jimmy Dean’s death. But it all goes to hell in a hand basket when a mystery woman arrives drudging up long forgotten and buried memories from the sordid past of those involved. An interesting, albeit predictable, plot surfaces in this quaint time-focused drama, and makes for an easy night out at the theatre.
Set Designer Elizabeth Dapo working with Set Dresser Heather Brooks take authenticity to a new level with their creation of the old “5 & Dime” shop in McCarthy. Dapo’s simplistic structure that spans the stage allows for moments of flashback to occur simultaneously with moments in the present time, making for a very unique series of instances in the production. It’s Brooks’ illustrious décor that fills the set with clutter and sundry; giving it the authentic feel of an old convenience trap existing in two places in time at once. Original postcards litter the set and pictures of James Dean are practically everywhere; a hybrid of obsessive tribute and functionality consume every detail in Brooks’ dressing creating a very intricately developed and eye-catching space.
Playwright Ed Graczyk creates a curious yet esoteric work within this little bubble of McCarthy, Texas; a predictable drama that leaves little to the imagination once the dialogue gets rolling. The plot twists are predictable and the mysterious character’s arrival is painstakingly obvious as to just how she fits into their past. Graczyk’s work is not without its charm, however, the characterizations of stubborn stereotypes such as Juanita or the feisty sort like Sissy are clearly crafted and well-developed.
Director Franklin Akers keeps the pace of the production moving, handling the moments where flashback crosses streams into reality with a practiced ease. There are moments constructed in this play where events of 1955 occur simultaneously with those in 1975 and it is Akers’ blocking and firm hand of guidance that keep them feeling natural and making sense.
It is always a challenge when having characters who exist in a younger version of themselves that are then played by other actors. This element of the production caused a bit of a disconnect, mostly with Mona (Rachel Duda) and her counterpart ‘Mona Then’ (Holly Trout). It was difficult to believe that Trout’s character grew up into the woman that Duda portrayed as the pair shared no common traits, an issue which could have easily been overlooked had Trout and Duda adapted the same mannerisms or fashions of speaking. Trout’s thick Texas accent was at times too much while Duda’s accent was muddled at times wandered all over, making it difficult to understand. The pair of actresses did, to their credit, make exceptional emotional scenes; Duda during her breakdown toward the end of the show and Trout throughout the flashback scenes with her bursts of emotional fury and confusion all culminating into loud vocal eruptions.
Showcasing that physical similarities can be overlooked by copying each other’s mannerisms, gestures, and speech cadence, Sissy (Elizabeth Dapo) and her younger counterpart ‘Sissy Then’ (Kristin Peck) were grounded performers in this production. Both women held themselves with a certain sexual posture that made them the sassy blonde character written into the play. Peck, as the younger of the two, really focused on the similarities in their walk and their relationship to the Mona character, making it unmistakable that she would grow up to be what Dapo portrayed. Dapo was a well of entertainment, bubbling up new instances of humor that were tempered with some more serious moments of emotional weight. It is her breakdown that really tugs at your heart strings when the truth of her situation is revealed.
Crafting two of the most consistent characters in the production were Gayle Negri as the God-fearing and somewhat surly Juanita, and Barbara Lambert as Joanne. Lambert’s performance is nuanced with a sharp focus, crafting an enigmatic aura around her from the moment she arrives at the ‘5 & Dime.’ There is a shocking air about her when she takes it all in, and something deliciously uncanny about her portrayal that must be seen so as not to give away the dramatic plot twist. Negri’s performance is flawless, her accent sharply accurate and her little silent reactions priceless. Every time a curse word or foul slander is heard she throws a disproving glare in the general direction of the speaker, and her staunch approach to being cantankerous is in places quite humorous.
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is a cute little drama with the most detailed and decorated set to cross the Greenbelt Arts Center stage in quite some time. It’s worth a look.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.