The Funny Side of Jesus

A review of Messiah on the Frigidaire, which runs through March 24 at Workshop Theatre.

No, Virginia, Messiah on the Frigidaire is not a Mel Gibson production. Greenville playwright John Culbertson has written a very funny play that manages to make some very serious points, not at all an easy thing to do.

The production at Workshop is set in Elroy, S.C., "a small town in the Upstate." Messiah deals with the, shall we say, lower, socio-economic element of the community. In other words, rednecks. Walter O'Rourke's set is a place that any trailer trash would be proud to call home, complete with pink flamingos and an old pick-up on blocks. Dominating things is a big and pristine white refrigerator that lives on the porch (naturally) of the Hightower trailer.

Lou Ann and Dwayne have been together for 10 years, and the bloom is definitely off the rose. She's depressed, and as she confides to her best buddy and next double-wide neighbor Betsy, "There ought to be more to life than living in the best trailer park in town." Poor Dwayne just can't get it together, his schemes habitually going up in smoke.

But then a miracle occurs, right in the best Preston Sturges tradition. An image of, you guessed it, Jesus appears on the front of the fridge, and Dwayne thinks his ship has come in at last. He promptly stocks grape Nehi for communion wine and saltless Saltines for the unleavened bread to feed the multitudes that will come to see Him.

To tell you more would spoil the considerable fun Culbertson has in store for you. Suffice to say that no aspect of the less savory side of Southern culture is left unskewered ‹ the hypocrisy, fake piety, sanctimoniousness and money grubbing are all there. That's the easy part, as these are such clear targets. What's more impressive is how the playwright takes these stereotypes and turns them into real people. Lou Ann really does have a crisis to deal with, and Dwayne is appealingly flawed, not just another no-account redneck. Daringly, the playwright even builds to a climax considerably darker than what we might have anticipated, with a Flannery O'Connor-esque touch that is most effective.

Wayne-John Rousse, who has appeared in many musicals around town, does very well in his directorial debut. His cast is outstanding. Katherine Prenovost and Shane Walters make a very real pair of Hightowers: she quite poignant in her lostness, he very funny in a low-key way. Bill DeWitt is perfect as a decidedly uncharismatic preacher. Toby Taylor is a hissably villainous, slimy, small town politico. In small but key roles are Katria Weyl and two Inghams, father Mark and young son David. Absolutely stealing the show is the terrific Leah Verona, for whom the word statuesque should have been invented. She wears Becky Hunter's deliciously trashy costumes with great style, and her comic timing is faultless. Like her director, she's done outstanding work in local musicals and here proves just as adept in a straight role ‹ if you can call Betsy a straight role. And viva Regina Gomez!

I laughed more at this play than I have at anything on a local stage in a long time. And for that, many thanks to the skillful playwright and the talented cast that brings this piece to life. You can talk about your playwright competitions, but this new play is just about the best new play I've seen produced on a Columbia stage, and if there's any justice, Messiah on the Frigidaire will have a very long shelf-life. ‹ Addison DeWitt