The summer has always been a time to pack up the car and head for the country and, in a manner of speaking, that's exactly what the theater has been doing.
The big hit in the movie houses may be "Back to the Future," but on Washington's stages, the prevailing motif has been Back to the Sticks. No fewer than four plays this summer have taken place in rural America, although, I hasten to add, not as it is traditionally depicted on the cover of The New Yorker, for which "country" invariably means tidy cottages, luxuriant geraniums and pastel Bermuda shorts.
No, we're talking about real backwoods country, redneck country, barefoot country, where the houses are having trouble standing, Geranium is apt to be the name of the town hooker (or the village idiot) and the only people dressing up are members of the Ku Klux Klan. I can't remember when we've last seen such an entertaining concentration of rubes, nitwits, clods, zealots and outright loons.
Olney Theatre, which used to give us Shaw, led off the summer with Larry Shue's "The Foreigner," the zany misadventures of a timid Brit in deepest, darkest Georgia, where the accents are as thick as the Spanish moss and two-digit IQs are the norm. (The zany comedy proved so popular it has been rescheduled as a postseason attraction, Oct. 1 to 27, and you'd be wise to book ahead.)
Olney's current production looks at the misfits and oddballs who are caught up in "The Miss Firecracker Contest," a small-town Mississippi beauty pageant that, as imagined by playwright Beth Henley, has definitely seen better days and tonier contestants than Carnelle Scott, the good-hearted tramp who hopes to capture first prize and leave town "in a crimson blaze of glory."
Lynn Siefert's "Coyote Ugly," one of the two plays that Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company performed at the Kennedy Center, showed us a son bringing home his new bride to meet the family. Home happened to be a shack on the junk-littered Arizona desert, and the family was a brood of unwashed, unapologetic slovens, not above parading about in dirty underwear.
And now occupying the Terrace Theater is "Tent Meeting," a spirited satire of religious fundamentalism as manifested in a family of Arkansas yokels: Reverend Ed Tarbox, his lumbering son and his bizarre daughter, who seem to think that the misshapen infant tucked away in a picnic hamper in their trailer is Baby Jesus reincarnated for our times.
Although all these works are comedies, they vary widely in tone. Shue's is terribly good-natured -- a red-dust fairy tale, really, in which the hares outwit the hounds. Henley adroitly straddles the fine line separating the odd from the grotesque. Siefert borrows her homecoming scenario from Sam Shepard, but decks it out with the kind of gross-out humor common to the films of John Waters. And the authors of "Tent Meeting" (Levi Lee, Larry Larson and Rebecca Wackler, who also happen to be the three cast members) have written what would be the equivalent of an ecclesiastical sick joke were its outlandishness not quite so bracing.
Taken together, however, all four plays advance a distinct view of rural America as a land where few people are in full possession of their wits; superstition and bigotry remain deeply entrenched, and not everybody bothers to bathe. There is, we could easily conclude between bursts of laughter, a deep strain of fanaticism running through the country. The villains in "The Foreigner," after all, are bent on restoring the tradition of the white sheet and the blazing cross, and Bible-thumping Reverend Ed Tarbox, who receives typewritten directives from on high, sees a new nation of faithful souls arising before his very eyes -- and, of course, none other than himself presiding triumphantly as its spiritual leader.
Lunacy lurks everywhere. The whole point of "Coyote Ugly" is that there's no escaping the sharp talons of an incestuous family. Indeed, mother and son come dangerously close to repeating the sweaty act that, 12 years earlier, produced the rebellious girl who keeps darting under their feet when she's not spitting in their faces. In "Tent Meeting," sweet, slow-witted Becky Tarbox, the mother of the sorry infant in that picnic hamper, stuffs her ears with wads of cotton so the celestial music she alone hears won't leak out.
Even sweeter (and slower) is Ellard Simms, the addled dimwit in "The Foreigner," for whom a routine query like "How do you like your eggs?" constitutes a true brainteaser. And although they are delightfully matter-of-fact about their oddities, all of Henley's Southerners are seriously tetched. Take, for example, Popeye Jackson, the industrious seamstress in "Miss Firecracker" who came by her nickname when she accidentally used eardrops in her eyes, causing them to bulge out. "The fortunate part," she explains cheerfully, "is I can now hear voices through my eyes."
I suppose a sociologist could draw some revelatory conclusions from all this. We're told the hallmark of the Reagan years has been a "return to normalcy," a restoration of traditional values, a new respect for God and family.
These four plays clearly suggest that such normalcy, if it exists, is tissue-paper thin and that underneath, life in the American heartland is wackier than ever. Patriotism, it's claimed, is on the upswing. Maybe so, but in "Miss Firecracker," patriotism is a question of Carnelle Scott dying her hair flaming orange, dressing up in red, white and blue, twirling batons and doing awkward splits to "The Star-Spangled Banner" in an abortive bid to sweep the talent competition. And from the evidence in "Tent Meeting" and "The Foreigner," where the most duplicitous character is a minister, religion is riddled with charlatanism, and being born again is no defense against boobery.
If you're not one to take plays as sociological barometers, however, there are some purely theatrical explanations that also help account, I think, for what's going on here. First and foremost is the matter of language.
Film defines people by how they look, but in the theater, it's what they say that counts. Words are the playwright's raw material. At a time when regional differences in speech are on the wane and television has us all talking and sounding more or less the same, a playwright's ear is bound to perk up at the twang of an accent or the hint of a colloquialism. Rural speech -- whether it's coming from the pine-scented South or the sun-blasted Southwest -- tends to be more poetic, more imaginative, more intrinsically theatrical than its urban counterpart.
What redeems Henley's characters, who really are poor white trash, is the lackadaisical charm of their language, a kind of residual verbal gallantry that harks back to the grander days of the South. They are born talkers. Instead of simply saying "Shut up," they are more likely to say "Shut up your red-blood lips." An interjection like "Good Lord" becomes in their mouths "Good Lord and butter!" The sweet delusions of words are part of their heritage, like the old spinning wheel in the front parlor. Listen to them and you can hear echoes of Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers.
The pecularities of southern speech are also responsible for one of the funniest aspects of "The Foreigner": a running English lesson. The title character is an Englishman so fearful of human society that when obliged to spend a few days in a remote Georgia fishing lodge, he pretends to be incapable of speaking or understanding English. Far from leaving him alone, the local bumpkins find him wildly exotic and proceed to teach him their language. "Faw-werk," coaches idiotic Ellard, holding up a fork, helpfully. "Two parts. Faw-werk . . . Put them together." The foreigner complies, and before long has also learned "aigs," "lay-ump" and "na-ail." Where else but in the sticks is comic instruction like that conceivable?
The characters in "Tent Meeting" mangle grammar and misquote Scripture, but in this case, ignorance is zest, and the dialogue, propelled by the Holy Roller cadences of Reverend Ed, is robustly funny. While no one is certain of the identity of the baby in the picnic hamper -- it has no vital organs, you see, and resembles a turnip -- Reverend Ed nonetheless draws himself up in majesty and thunders, "I have had a revelation. I have seen a name for the child. He shall be called Prince of Peace, Wise Counselor, Blessed Redeemer. He shall be called as he was in his first incarnation, when he promised to all those who kept his covenant that he would return in glory. From henceforth, his name shall be linked with the distinguished name of our family. The child shall be called Jesus. Jesus O. Tarbox." They sure don't talk like that in New York.
But it's not just language that lures our playwrights into the country. Increasingly, I think, the country is perceived as a bastion of eccentric behavior and colorful characters, who naturally take to the stage. It hasn't always been this way. In fact, for a long time, the city was where the drama was. It hosted a greater range of human behavior than the country, which was judged intolerant and unforgiving of all but a narrow range of hard-working, church-going conduct.
I'm not sure when the switch came about. But eccentric behavior in the city now strikes us as threatening. We have become paranoid about the lunatics, gentle or otherwise, roaming our streets, and we automatically give them a wide berth. A drunken bum weaving in the gutter is different from a drunken bum weaving down a country lane, even if he's the same soused creature. And I hate to imagine what we'd think of Henley's would-be beauty queen -- sexually misguided creature that she's been -- if she showed up on 42nd Street. What used to be the city's glory -- its passing show -- is now cause for suspicion, alarm, fear.
Our playwrights have chronicled much of that urban insanity; drawn on the erratic, unpredictable violence, and in doing so, helped anchor the fear and suspicion in our minds. The upshot is that the city has become a sour and unaccommodating locale for comedy; it tends to add an uneasy, manic edge to human relationships and transforms eccentricity into aberrancy. Rural America is a far more congenial setting for screwballs and crackpots, who can indulge their madness without appearing quite so menacing. Indeed, their madness amuses us as an extension off that quirky, cussed independence of character that has always been part of American folklore.
Finally, I suspect the rural strain in our drama remains strong because most of us continue to see ourselves in terms of the towns and the country spaces where we grew up. The New Yorker will forever be the exception, priding himself on his concrete roots. But the rest of us subscribe to the enduring myths of "Our Town," not only for its homey values but also because the scale is manageable.
On many of those television game shows to which I am rather stupidly addicted, I have noticed that contestants are increasingly being introduced as "originally from Pine Bluff, Arkansas" or "originally from Boyne City, Michigan." It's no secret that they live in the teeming L.A. megalopolis, but you can't have all the players hailing from the same place. Someone in the game show think tank arrived at the rightful conclusion that having contestants from different spots on the map not only makes them more interesting to the home viewers but also adds variety and drama to the game that follows.
There was a lot of similar thinking going on in our theaters this summer. Frankly, I found it refreshing.