Play probes faith with humor and drama

Mark Jordan
Mount Vernon News

God works in mysterious ways. And his marketing skills are amazing. The very same week that the Freshwater controversy about a teacher having a Bible on his desk swept Mount Vernon and the so-called “documentary” film about Intelligent Design, “Expelled,” opened at the movie theater (review to come Monday), Bruce Jacklin and Company opened a comedy/drama at the Alcove that has everything in the world to do with faith and faith’s followers. Jacklin need not be suspected of capitalizing on ready publicity about the intersection of faith and society, for the play “Messiah on the Frigidaire” was chosen over a year ago and has been in rehearsal for weeks.

The play involves a woman named Lou Ann Hightower, who lives in a trailer park with her husband Dwayne. She confesses her frustration at her dead-end life to her best friend Betsy, and says that she’s been praying hard for a sign that she’s on the right path. As the sun goes down and streetlights come on, they cast shadows on the Hightowers’ extra refrigerator— kept on the porch— which look like an image of Jesus. Or Willie Nelson, in Dwayne’s estimation. Soon the trailer park becomes the shrines to which thousands flock in order to see the image. But the situation deteriorates as problems erupt right and left. At the peak of things, Lou Ann chops up the hedges casting the shadows after she sees a woman smacking her blind son for not believing hard enough that the image will give him his sight. Just after that moment of despair and doubt, a kindly old stranger wanders up to the sobbing Lou Ann, calls her by name, and tells her not to give up hope. He says that God is not where everyone says He is, but is where He appears not to be. 

As Lou Ann, Maureen Browning was earnest and likable in the comic parts, and genuinely moving in the dramatic parts, particularly her crisis of faith in act two. Megan Evans was mischievous and sharp as best friend Betsy, slowly revealing new layers of the character as the play unfolded, giving what could have been a stereotypical character real depth. Bruce Jacklin started the character Dwayne pretty broadly, but gave genuine conviction to the character’s non-intellectual but very real questioning of the usual order of things. This allowed Dwayne to develop into a sort of thinking man’s blue-collar comedian. He gave the role soul, too.

Ian Ernsberger conveyed the strained unctuousness of Preacher Hodges, who first throws Lou Ann out of the church, and then invites her back in when the image becomes popular. The small town’s crooked banker Larry Williamson was played by Gene Johnson as an opportunistic political cad unable to see his own limitations. Hope Dial made a brief but memorable appearance as the self-professed faithful mother who takes out her anger on her child. The poor blind child was played with simple, heart-breaking eagerness and confusion by young Michael Chadil, a sixth grader from Fredericktown making his debut at the Alcove. Last, but far from least, Chuck Ransom was witty and wise as the elderly stranger who wanders up to Lou Ann’s porch and bestows a little grace.

Jacklin’s direction gave the show balance in traversing what could be a mine-field. Played as nasty stereotypes, the trailer park tenants could have come across as nothing more than poor white trash. But Jacklin guided his actors to finding the real people beneath the characters’ surfaces. Thus Betsy wasn’t just the once-upon-a-time “high school slut,” she was a real person, somewhat troubled by her past without being ashamed of it. Lou Ann wasn’t a naïve believer, she was one who constantly re-examined her faith, sifting it for answers. The play’s script, by John Culbertson, largely avoids cheap shots, finding laughs in the characters foibles without mocking them, a refreshing change for a play set in a southern trailer park.

As always, Jacklin found ingenious ways to fit all the set and action on the Alcove’s small stage, decorated as the exterior of a mobile home. One tiny detail that slightly distracted me was that the clothing hanging on the clothesline hung through several scenes ostensibly taking place over a number of days before being taken down in a later scene as part of the stage business. The costumes were effective, with some snazzy outfits showing off Evans’ model-like figure. The lighting was good, with the images clearly visible on the refrigerator. Two sound notes: First, since the actress had a pair of hedge clippers in hand for the climactic hedge-clipping moment, I’m not sure why the staging suddenly defaults to a sound-effect; second, a quicker fade-out and start to the curtain call at play’s end wouldn’t hurt.
The play continues Saturday night and the next three weekends.