The storm clouds on the Central Illinois horizon pale beside the shadows of abuse, adultery, addiction, illness, incest, and suicide in Parasite Drag, Mark Roberts’ slice of Midwest life now getting its Southern California Premiere at the Elephant Theatre Company. Electrically directed by David Fofi in association with Don Foster and powerfully performed by a quartet of topnotch actors, Parasite Drag mixes dramatic confrontations with biting dollops of humor to gripping effect.

Gene and Joellen Brown, now in their twentieth year of martial boredom in Tolono, Illinois (population 2700), have been at it again at lights up, Joellen having punched Gene in the face, her husband’s already blackening eye a result.  “I told you, it wasn’t intentional,” maintains Joellen (Mim Drew), a tall, still attractive blonde with one hell of a right hook. “I was just ‘air punching’ and you happened to be in the way.”

Today’s tiff began with Gene’s outraged discovery that Joellen had been sharing a joint with his AIDS-ravaged sister Nadine in her hospital room.  “I was thinking about that sick girl laying there starving to death,” explains Joellen. “I saw it as an act of charity.”  Gene sees it differently, placing the blame for his drug addict sister’s terminal illness squarely on her own emaciated shoulders. Regarding the state of his marriage to Joellen, Gene tells her succinctly: “You live your life and do what you have to do, and I’ll do the same. I wash my hands of you.”

As if having an older sister at death’s door weren’t already enough, who should show up on Gene and Joellen’s doorstep but his ne’r-do-well older brother Ronnie (Boyd Kestner) and Ronnie’s trailer trash bride Susie (Agatha Nowicki)? The charmingly ingenuous Susie immediately violates Gene’s “No Cussing/No Smoking” rules (“Ronnie said you was crazy religious,” she quips), though her occasional need for a smoke are nothing compared to Ronnie’s frequent resorting to the F word.

As for Gene, the born again Christian is none too happy about his older brother’s visit, having given every living relative specific instructions not to give out his address, an order violated by an uncle who told his nephew simply to look for (in Ronnie’s words) “a plastic fuckin’ goose.  Then come to find out this neighborhood is stinkin’ with them fuckin’ things.”  When questioned about his bride, Ronnie explains that he met the Kentucky native in Sunday School, and as a result, “She only takes it in the ass. Weird, isn’t it?”  With words as salty as these being bandied about in a Christian home, there are bound to be fireworks when the family black sheep and his Southern bride move into the spare room.

Playwright Roberts knows these people and the places they come from like the back of his hand.  Tolono, Illinois is a (real-life) town where a KFC bucket atop the dinette table represents a gourmet meal and grace before dinner means praying that the soldiers defending our freedom be given “the courage and the strength to smite down their enemies with a mighty sword … so that we may have peace.” 

As Parasite Drag’s dark, ugly secrets are revealed one by one, it becomes clear that none of its characters are the people they’ve first appeared to be. Gene’s religious fervor comes not so much from authentic faith as from a need to block out a horrendous childhood.  Joellen is a wilted flower who might easily have blossomed in another place (or with another mate) and still might if only she could escape.  Ronnie’s deliberate vulgarity has more to do with riling his brother than any lack of vocabulary, and in fact he may well be the most erudite of the four.  And as for Susie, scratch beneath that thick Southern accent and surface ditz and you’ll find a warm and gentle heart, a big chunk of smarts, and the strength of a lioness when it comes to defending her man.

As for the future, well that depends as much upon the path of the approaching storm as to any life decisions any of them might choose to make.

The four-actor ensemble do terrific work each and every one. A heartbreaking Foster shows us a Gene for whom faith provides the only weapon against memories of a past too horrible to recall. As Joellen, the marvelous Drew reveals a woman made drab by a drab life, her occasional bursts of passion coming as unexpected surprises.  The endearing Nowicki reveals the sharp-as-tacks woman under Susie’s white trash exterior, and a heart as good as gold. Best of all is sexy Kestner as Ronnie, cussing like a sailor one moment, articulate as a college prof the next, the tears he eventually lets gush forth all the more devastating coming from a man who previously had seemed so cocksure of himself.

Show a snapshot of Danny Cistone’s set design to any Midwestern Gene and Joellen and they’d swear it was taken just down the street from their own similarly ordinary abode.  Joel Daavid’s lighting heightens the play’s moods and suspense as does Peter Bayne’s original music and the tornado sirens that are part of his very effective sound design. Louis Douglas Jacobs’s costumes are precisely the kind that can be seen in any shopping mall across the Midwest (or parts of Southern California for that matter). Parasite Drag is produced by Lindsay Allbaugh.  Shannon Simonds is stage manager.

At under two hours, Roberts’ play moves along lickety-split, never outstaying its welcome. Though occasionally lightened by some refreshingly comedic moments, it is Parasite Drag’s relentless dramatic intensity (and its powerful performances) that are likely to remain in the audience’s collective memory long after its sudden climactic blackout.

The Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 13, 2010
                                                                             Photos: Joel Daavid


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