Iris, the 19-year-old Englishwoman who is the heroine of Kathleen Betsko's "Johnny Bull," has images of Doris Day movies in her head when she arrives in the United States to rejoin her GI husband. To her dismay, not to say outright shock, she lands in Willard Patch, a depressed Pennsylvania mining town, where life resembles a cross between the Ma and Pa Kettle comedies and a John Wayne shoot-'em-up.
How Iris adapts to her surprising in-laws and comes to stand on her own two feet is the matter of Betsko's play -- which is being given its area premiere by Horizons Theatre in Georgetown. Betsko is profiled on Page D7. Warm, observant, meaty and often very funny, the drama allows Horizons' cast of five to act up a storm, which for the most part it does. While Betsko is not yet a fully accomplished playwright -- she has a tendency to ramble and she is not one to shy away from a cliche' -- she is nonetheless extraordinarily honest in her work.
Indeed, I suspect most spectators will come away from "Johnny Bull" with the impression that they have witnessed something real. It's not simply that Betsko is chronicling her own experiences as a dreamy (and pregnant) Englishwoman who debarked in the late 1950s in this brave new world only to become imprisoned in a narrow-minded family with resolutely old-fashioned notions about a woman's place in life and marriage. Plenty of playwrights draw upon their personal histories. The usual tendency, however, is to stack the cards -- whether to exorcise demons or simply make a bigger statement.
Betsko, however, writes without pretension or rancor. She is not taking sides, not even her own. The theater has allowed her to put her past into perspective, perhaps, but she hasn't bent it out of shape. She just wants to tell us what strikes her -- justifiably -- as a rather fascinating account of two different cultures clashing.
While Iris steps out of the play periodically to fill us in on details crucial to the narrative, there is nothing innovative about the form. This is, basically, slice-of-life realism. Were it not, in fact, for Betsko's unwavering desire to serve memory truthfully, it might all seem rather musty. The playwright's candor and her cleareyed generosity toward characters who are less than sympathetic at first sight blow away most of the cobwebs.
If there is an unspoken message to the play, I suppose it's that without really trying, people sometimes get themselves into the darnedest fixes, but they can also get out of them with patience and understanding. And in the end, no one's really to blame. Iris (played with genuine spirit and a lovely sense of openness by Barbara Klein) certainly winds up in the stew -- or more appropriately, given the Hungarian origins of her in-laws -- the goulash.
Her father-in-law (Grady Smith) has just been laid off from the mine and unemployment is exacerbating his autocratic temperament, not to mention his drinking. Her seemingly reserved mother-in-law (Barbara Rappaport) has been worn old before her time by years of household drudgery, of which Iris is expected to shoulder her fair share. Her sister-in-law (Carole Myers) is jealous, resentful and mentally deficient. Even her husband (Brian Hemmingsen) seems to lose both his charm and his spine under this suffocating roof.
Expecting the easy amenities of California, Iris gets hostile glares, rude remarks (the title is the family's disparaging term for the intruding bride) and pigs' feet for dinner. Before long, she's out on the slag heap scavenging for lumps of coal with the rest of them. Getting to the Woolworth's in the nearest hamlet becomes her sweetest dream.
And yet . . . barriers will come down, slowly and unexpectedly. The mother-in-law proves wiser and spunkier than her faded housedress might indicate. Iris discovers she is more resilient than she suspected. A little fun and glimmers of love creep into the benighted household, edging the old prejudices momentarily aside. A few bridges are built. And if Iris still has to leave in the end, she does so with a greater knowledge of people. In that respect, "Johnny Bull" takes an unabashedly affirmative view of life's tribulations.
You may wince at such old chestnuts as "Ain't there been enough killin' in this house?" or "What do women know how a man feels when he can't take care of his own?" When Betsko's dialogue errs, it is on the self-consciously colloquial side. But she is never afraid to plunge into a scene and grapple with strong emotions. Her characters do speak their limited minds and that forthrightness makes for the dramatic strength of "Johnny Bull."
It also makes for a full-bodied production, directed with a sharp, unsentimental eye by Dorothy Neumann, and acted by a cast that, with one exception, avoids the obvious temptation to rely on Hatfield and McCoy caricatures. Hemmingsen is still the best actor in town when it comes to portraying sensitive louts. Rappaport deftly reveals all the complexities and the contradictions behind the mother's stern facade, while Myers understands that even a simpleton has depths of feeling. Only Grady's shotgun-packing paterfamilias registers as less than three-dimensional.
"One thing you have to understand," Iris tells us by way of explaining her willingness to immigrate to the United States, "is how gray England was after the war." Willard Patch may represent the betrayal of all her aspirations, but it is far from drab. Playwright Betsko depicts it -- as Iris herself comes to see it -- in living color.
Johnny Bull, by Kathleen Betsko. Directed by Dorothy Neumann; set, Matthew Cooper; lighting, Carol B. Fishman and Jean S. Rosenthal; costumes, Catherine Duffy. With Barbara Klein, Barbara Rappaport, Carole Myers, Grady Smith and Brian Hemmingsen. At the Horizons Theatre through May 18.