Review: This Side of the Dirt by Tito Beveridge
by Michael Meigs
The audience arriving in the black box theatre at the Dougherty Arts Center is treated to Donnie Stroud's marvelous slide show of Old West images from pastel postcards and hand-tinted photos from the early twentieth century.
A few notes on This Side of the Dirt by Tito Beveridge, which follows:
- The two characters with whom we spend most of our time are both women. Jonna Juul-Hansen is Jean Ann, the middle-aged heiress of this South Texas ranch. She's self-centered, suspicious, alcoholic, loud, self-pitying and vituperative, especially when speaking of her husband Jimmy. Jean Ann's first sound is a yowl as she's revealed prostrate on the couch, gulping booze through a long straw and lamenting the death of her father the saintly patriarch. Jean Ann's closest acquaintance is Beth Shea as 'Aunt' Sally. 'Best friend' would be a stretch, given the unpleasantness and persistently quarrelsome nature of the female lead. Sally's an unapologetic sexpot who loses no time in counseling Jean Ann on the usefulness of blow jobs for keeping men happy. 'Aunt' is an honorific, for Sally is in fact no blood relation, which is a good thing. She's spent a lot of time in recent years keeping Jean Ann's eightyish Papa happy in bed. So there in the first extended scene you have the concept of This Side of the Dirt: woman as Bitch or Slut. Daughter of the house UT student Jenny (Jennifer Caplain) is brought on just long enough to express annoyance at her mother's histrionics and to confirm that she, too, knows everything about the effectiveness of B.J.s.
- These women instantly believe rumors and credit speculations. The playwright sets them up for hysteria and wisecracks by delivering rumors that good ole boy Jimmy, who disappeared immediately after the funeral to go fishing from the family's palatial second home in Port Aransas, has been seen in the company of an attractive blonde. Young Jenny's reported to have expressed her infatuation with Anthony (that's the name of her brother), and someone's found a positive pregnancy test in Jenny's trash can in the dorm.
- Jimmy, now head of the family, lets us know he was devoted to Papa. He eventually insists that he's no dumbshit. He has a degree in petroleum engineering and an MBA. In fact he was the one who fended off foreclosure of the family business when Papa got into trouble, but wife Jean Ann gives him no affection or respect for that.
- The couple's children Jenny and Anthony are both students at the University of Texas. They were brought up together as brother and sister, but they're not related by blood. If this was explained, I missed it. So, as 'Aunt' Sally points out, there's no real impediment to the two of them falling in love or having sex.
- Faithful friend to the family is Juan (Mark Hernandez), a contemporary of Jimmy and Jean Ann. Juan is diffident, devoted and unobtrusive. He still comes by to sweep the courtyard, although oil strikes on his property have made him a millionaire. Juan listens patiently to family woes and in one lengthy and largely incoherent scene smokes dope in the garden with Anthony the college student (Jae McCain). The only thing that saves this character from being a Tío Tomás in the Harriet Beecher Stowe sense is that he's been getting it on in secret with 'Aunt' Sally.
- The principal bridge of tension in this two-act play is manifested in the anger, distance and distrust between bitch Jean Ann and good ole boy Jimmy. The principal plot device is that neither is willing to talk to the other. The principal intrigue is that Jean Ann decides that she needs to kill Jimmy, even though she's totally incompetent at everything in life. The principal instrument of dénouement is an interminable letter penned by saintly Papa the day before his death praising each of them individually and disposing of his property. The man was not only a saint; he was a seer. His magic words mend all rifts, appear to convert Jean Ann's murderous intentions into abject adoration of her husband, and bless everyone in sight.
What to make of all this?
- The playwright attempts to do a ighthearted treatment of family life in South Texas. Think Dallas with character comedy. The result is closer to a very unfunny Beverly Hillbillies.
- However well intentioned the comedy, it reduces itself to the world view of uneducated rural males boozing at a backwoods hunting camp: Men are sincere but women are neurotic and ridiculous.
- Every character is comfortably well off and unquestioning of that fact.
- The flimsy plot is constructed on unexplored misperceptions and resolved by an unbelievable deus-ex-machina. The deus remains conveniently dead, leaving all his property to the newly reconciled. No one is punished or deprived, so no lessons are learned except that neurotic women need to honor their men.
Guitarist Shawn Pander and a percussionist providing interlude music are intrusive, overamplified and not particularly relevant even though Pander has used phrases from the work.
Production design values are generally high. Most physical comedy bits are not comic.
Playing Jimmy the undervalued husband, Wray Crawford is exuberant or adamant as required. Beth Shea appears to have a wicked good time as wicked 'Aunt' Sally. Mark Hernandez as former family retainer Juan is more wooden than inhibited or abashed. Jonna Juul-Hansen's hyperkinetic performance as protagonist Jean Ann has been pushed by director Ty Roberts beyond coherence or credibility.
Free Tito's Vodka cocktails are available in the lobby. During the climactic catastrophic family dinner with all the revelations both Crawford and Hernandez fill tumblers from the 1.75 liter bottle kept on the serving board and they drink it down with no discernible ill effects. So Tito's Vodka must be good for what ails you.
Performance Photos by Geraldine Leloutre: THIS SIDE OF THE DIRT by Tito Beveridge, June 2 - 18, 2016
June 02 - June 18, 2016
1110 Barton Springs Road
Austin, TX, 78704
Tito’s Handmade Vodka presents new play written by Tito Beveridge
June 2-4, 2016 | Thursday thru Saturday at 8 pm
June 9-10, 2016 | Thursday thru Saturday at 8 pm
June 16-18, 2016 | Thursday thru Saturday at 8 pm
at the Dougherty Arts Center | 1110 Barton Springs Rd | Austin, TX
TICKETS: $35. Tickets on sale now via Brown Paper Tickets, by calling or in person the night of the show.
Enjoy a cocktail while you watch the play. Parking is free at the Daugherty Theater lot. We highly encourage you to take an Uber, taxi or get drop off. For private garages locations use this tool http://en.parkopedia.com/parking/1110_barton_springs_rd_austin_tx_78704/