LAST DAYS at the Dixie Girl Cafe" is a tidy, tangy little comedy-drama liberally seasoned with a sense of the absurd. Affectionately performed by Horizons Theater, Robin Swicord's play manages to serve up nuclear fear, small-town desperation and evangelical hope on the same platter.
In tiny Bainbridge, Georgia (which seems to be spiritual kin to such whimsical fictitious towns as Tuna, Texas, and Fernwood, U.S.A), the Dixie Girl Cafe is closing down -- under orders from God.
According to its determinedly sunny proprietor, Jeri Lee, these are not only the Last Days of her beloved cafe, but also of the world. Lovingly addressing the audience as if they were her "regulars," Jeri Lee confides that she has a covenant with God, who has picked her to have His baby. So spinster Jeri Lee, hunting for a husband in a hurry, settles for Wayne Blossom, a pinheaded fallout- shelter salesman, after a two-day courtship.
Jeri Lee makes it her business to do the Lord's bidding, and plans to put things right with "the power of love." There's certainly plenty of tension and rage to be salved in her family-to-be, which includes baton-twirling daughter Little Lanette; surly son Wayne Jr., a philandering gas station attendant; and Wayne Jr.'s frustrated tomboyish wife, Joy Knight Blossom.
With her sure, economical sketching of the characters and chattily comic dialogue, Swicord makes this silly situation almost believable. Though Jeri Lee's fantasy and sweet optimism may be a defense against the day-to- day despair around her, God is noted for working in strange and mysterious ways, so who's to say He wouldn't choose her as the mom of the next Messiah?
Swicord's engaging characters reveal some all-too-common aches and pains, and for all their baton-twirling, sugar-eating, Bible- thumping loopiness, the playwright doesn't neglect their human qualities. Among the one- liners and regional colloquialisms is the occasional stinger, as when Wayne Jr. describes the disappointment and hurt at the core of his marriage, saying, "I guess you never truly despise someone till you marry 'em."
Director Dorothy Neumann gets fine, lively performances all around. Betsy Nuell is particularly touching as Jeri Lee, who does the Lord's bidding, whatever it is, from sharing her recipe for congealed fruit salad to taking messages from Wayne Jr.'s girfriends, to mediating a raging family dispute. As slovenly Wayne Jr., Brian Hemmingsen immerses himself in the part, glowering with a resigned brutishness whose source is revealed in a poignant monologue. And as born-to-be-mild Wayne Sr., Nick Olcott successfully conveys the dangerousness of the peevish, narrowminded, Bomb-obsessed man who, as his son says, "can close his fist right around the truth and say it isn't so."
Matthew Cooper's charmingly careworn cafe is accurate Americana, right down to the requisite bubble jukebox, scuffed tiles, stars 'n' stripes glasses and Ernest Angley evangelizing earnestly on the cafe's tiny television.
LAST DAYS AT THE DIXIE GIRL CAFE -- At Horizons Theater, Grace Episcopal Church, 1041 Wisconsin Avenue NW, through May 19.