Is there something about mini-marts that prompts soul searching? You might almost think so after watching Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “Trish Tinkler Gets Saved” and Julia Starr’s “The Long Way Around.” In both of these uneven new plays, which are part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, protagonists contemplate overhauling their lives while inside, or just outside of, convenience stores.
Goldfinger’s comedy, mounted by Unexpected Stage Company, gets a good deal of mileage from its stop-and-shop conceit. Hyper-colorful and funny, but so short on dramatic development that it often feels like a souped-up sketch, the play is set in an Eat ’n’ Save in a gentrifying neighborhood. The hard-working Rhonda (Rachael Murray) and her sweetly dim life partner Jan (Amanda Spellman), who likes to dress as a bear, are squatting in the once-abandoned store, which they are running as an illicit franchise.
As they prepare for a visit from an Eat ’n’ Save corporate bigwig who has already sent a cease-and-desist letter, the two women find themselves coping with Trish (Kristen Jepperson), a Whitesnake groupie left stranded after the departure of the rock band’s tour bus. Trish desperately wants to resume her life as a heavy-metal super-fan — or does she? Could her future be linked to Jan and Rhonda’s?
The play displays a wealth of comic inventiveness, some of it tempered with poignant undertones. The vivid characters turn out to have funny yet heart-wrenching back stories — Trish’s involves an ill-judged gag with a chicken — and their current plight is also ridiculous and aching. After claiming to have had a mystical vision of the Whitesnake frontman in the middle of the store, Trish pleads with Rhonda not to call the police. “I can’t go back to jail!” she wails. “They don’t let me listen to Whitesnake in there. They say it’s disruptive and my interpretive dance of ‘Here I Go Again’ is pornographic!”
Director Christopher Goodrich’s production gets to the heart of Goldfinger’s quirky story. Jepperson’s Trish is a blowzily exuberant but slightly pathetic figure in her Whitesnake T-shirt, miniskirt and toeless high-heel lace-up boots. She can do a mean vocal guitar shred. (Jepperson also designed the show’s costumes. Goodrich is Unexpected Stage’s co-producing artistic director.)
Murray’s harried Rhonda and Spellman’s childlike Jan are just as watchable. And Katie Miller’s set — its shelves meagerly stocked with Luvs, cling wrap, crackers, Crystal Light, knockoff-brand cereals and other essentials — hits just the right note of woebegone naturalism. (John Barbee and Marji Jepperson masterminded the props.)
Still, Goldfinger’s script is a few dramatic beats short of being a satisfying play. Trish never seems to be in any real danger of being ejected from the Eat ’n’ Save; some of the dialogue seems to be pure kooky riffing, without meaningful payoff; and the ending, while clever, feels like the sudden wrap-up of a skit.
By contrast, “The Long Way Around” — mounted by the Highwood Theatre — has a traditional narrative arc. A tale of love, friendship and self-definition, the play centers on Luce and Addie (Mo O’Rourke and Stephanie Tomiko), young adults in small-town Illinois. The two were best friends in high school, but their lives diverge after Addie moves to Chicago, where she comes out as a lesbian. Married to unambitious but overbearing teacher Nathan (Sam Taylor), Luce begins to wonder whether she has shortchanged her own dreams and desires. After an evening spent partly outside a mini-mart, her inner turmoil floods to the surface.
Starr’s methodically plotted script sometimes spells out the tale’s underlying conflicts too baldly. But the play includes some moving depictions of tense, complex relationships. And the dramatist — who is only 22 — bends a cannily withering gaze on America’s bridal-motherhood-domesticity industry. (Included in Luce’s wedding-registry windfall: an oven mitt shaped like a lobster.)
Director Melissa B. Robinson’s production benefits greatly from Tomiko’s deft channeling of the yearning but decisive Addie. O’Rourke’s saucer-eyed Luce is less rounded, but the character’s diffidence — a major plot point — comes through persuasively.
Alison Talvacchio and Megan E. Konyndyk competently depict Joan and Heather, friends of Luce’s with very different personalities; Dylan Hares plays Bill, Addie’s ex. The simple production, on Highwood’s tiny stage, makes effective use of projections — including a shot of that existentially troubling mini-mart.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Jacqueline Goldfinger. Directed by Christopher Goodrich for Unexpected Stage Company; lighting design, Gary Hauptman; sound, Robert Pike; fight choreography, William Fleming. 70 minutes. Through Sunday at Randolph Road Theater, 4010 Randolph Road, Wheaton, Md. Tickets: $16-$27.50. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.unexpectedstage.org.
By Julia Starr. Directed by Melissa B. Robinson for the Highwood Theatre; costume design, Robinson and Tip Letsche; set design, Phoenix Ganz-Ratzat; lighting design and technical direction, Toly Yarup; sound, Orion Stekoll. 90 minutes. Through Oct. 25 at the Highwood Theatre, 914 Silver Spring Ave., Suite 102, Silver Spring, Md. Tickets: $22-$25. Call 301-587-0697 or visit www.thehighwoodtheatre.org.