"Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" is rich with atmosphere. The stifling heat and humidity of a desolate west Texas town oppress the inhabitants, sapping energy and damping their hopes and dreams. When the water supply runs dry and their world closes in on them, a cold Orange Crush soda is the best they can hope for, the icy bottle held to a sweaty forehead.
Playwright Ed Graczyk fills a shabby five-and-dime store with ambiance, creating a sense of the past that is still alive in the present with a story both serious and comic, unfolding in 1955 and 20 years later. In 1955, McCarthy, Tex., had its moment of semi-fame, as the James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor epic "Giant" was filmed nearby, a high point that the town's isolated residents are still obsessed with in 1975.
The glory of the brush with Hollywood glamour remains with them not just in their memories but also in the corporeal presence of one Jimmy-Dean, a 20-year-old we never meet. His mother claims Jimmy is the result of a one-night fling with the late, lamented Hollywood legend.
Two decades after Dean's death in a car crash, his Disciples of James Dean Fan Club is holding a reunion, the perfect opportunity for old ghosts to reappear and for the teenage girls who squealed for Dean to deal with each other again, this time as adults.
As they reminiscence, sharing laughs and tears, the women reveal long-held secrets. Graczyk lets us see them as adults and teenagers in a continually time-shifting montage that eventually exposes the way deceptions large and small help most of the women cope.
This is a challenging play to produce, requiring a team able to generate the proper atmosphere, one that's physically and psychologically stifling. The actors must create three-dimensional characters amid the wisecracks and melodrama, so that the audience will care enough to follow the complicated story as it crisscrosses decades. Rooftop Productions generally succeeds, particularly in bringing the women to life, in its production at the Kellar Theatre at the Candy Factory in Manassas.
The central figure in the play is Mona, who works as a clerk in the store and worries about her boy, Jimmy, whom she describes as "a moron." This condition was caused, she says, by her shock to the news of his father's fatal car crash during her pregnancy.
Mona is played by Kim Allison, who superbly captures the character's odd combination of emotional fragility and mental strength that allows her to twist reality out of shape to maintain her equilibrium. Kate Helper provides a pleasing counterbalance with her striking performance as grown-up Sissy, achieving maximum impact with a character whose breezy, profane personality cuts through the sense of emotional repression in that little shop like a bracing dash of cold water.
Director Scott Bailey allows the 10 women and one young man to be as funny as possible where appropriate but not so broadly that the characters lose their credibility for the serious moments. It's a tricky balance that is rigorously maintained from the play's slow beginning, through some peculiar plot developments to the emotionally charged and tear-inducing climax, as the audience comes to care for these flawed but decent people.
The uncredited scenic design is a problem, awkwardly spread out in the rectangular black-box theater and undermining the sense of claustrophobia. It's a situation exacerbated by a poorly designed seating arrangement that leaves many people in the audience unable to adequately see the actors. That's too bad, because there's plenty to see and enjoy.
"Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," by Rooftop Productions, continues through Saturday at the Kellar Theatre at the Candy Factory, Center for the Arts, 9419 Battle St., Manassas. Performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For information, call 703-330-2787 or go to www.center-for-the-arts.com.