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STAGE REVIEW : A Dreary Drama : 'Velma & Jessie' portrays women adjusting to life after the death of a man who abused them. Their performances are unappealing.


"Velma & Jessie," a generational drama about a family curse, is a dreary, exasperating play that's further damaged by unappealing performances at the Third Stage in Burbank.

Director Allan Hunt's efforts to draw empathy to this family, his whole mise en scene, is shot down by uneven performances. But tiresome characters will humble the best of actors.

Playwright Gale Baker, who had marked success with her country musical "Waterin' Hole" at the Tamarind Theatre and "Pin Curls" at Room for Theatre, here wallows in female family characters adjusting to life in the aftermath of the death of a father who had secretly abused all of them.

The specter of the old father (the bitter Stuart Lancaster) is the play's worst conceit. He sits off to the side, visible only to the audience, grumpily and sometimes (to Lancaster's credit) comically commenting on events in his home the day after his funeral.

His wife, Velma (Dorothy McDonald), a country woman contentedly rooted to the remote family hearth "somewhere between Knoxville and Nashville," appears relieved to have the house to herself. That is until the sudden arrival of flustered daughter Jessie (Marcia Rodd) followed by Jessie's offspring, the troubled, tough-talking M'Lisa (Geri Baker). Finally, Jessie's disaffected but loving husband bangs on the door (Cosmo Canale, the only likable figure in the play).

These dysfunctional women, as dramatized in a predictable series of revelatory one-on-one encounters, ultimately expose their dark experiences with sexual harassment and/or abuse at the hands of the old man, the at-once bedeviled husband, father and grandfather.

As they talk, he mutters defensively that he was always hapless and awkward when it came to women. We're supposed to be touched, if not understanding.

Relieved of their denial, their emotional kettles off the burner at last, grandmother, mother and daughter gather together in harmony, even redeeming the old man who nurtured the family poisons.

These largely unpleasant characters, veering from Rodd's stridence to Baker's jarring insecurity to Lancaster's lachrymose ghost to McDonald's forlorn widow, are too hackneyed to engender interest.

Impatiently, your eye wanders to the ungainly wrinkles in their costumes (except M'Lisa's tight yellow sweater, black pants and net stockings), which lend most of them a rumpled look--for a rumpled play.

Where and When What: "Velma & Jessie." Location: Third Stage , 2811 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Hours: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Ends March 7. Price: $10. Running time: 2 hours. Call: (213) 466-1767.

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