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THEATER REVIEW / 'LU ANN HAMPTON' : Unfulfilled Dreams From Texas

April 29, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Boy, the Old West just ain't what it used to be. At least not for the inheritors of a diminished tradition of frontier heroism who now inhabit Bradleyville, a small West Texas town where dreams come home to die.

Bradleyville is the setting for Preston Jones' "A Texas Trilogy," a set of related but independent plays that deal, in one way or another, with the failure of life to measure up to the romantic expectations we cast upon it.

"Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander" is the middle play in the series (which includes "The Oldest Living Graduate" and "The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia"), but no knowledge of the other two is needed to follow the life of its title heroine through three decades in her life.

What we find is a nicely detailed study in the way people can become exactly what they try to avoid becoming.

In a poignant and thoroughly satisfying staging by the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group, we first meet Lu Ann Hampton (Ann McFadden) as a bouncy, cheerleading high school student in carefree 1953. "Pepsodent and Ivory Soap pretty" (in the description of the playwright), Lu Ann dreams of castles in the air and looks forward to a better life outside her hometown of deadbeat, alcoholic cowboys.

Most of all, she's determined not to turn out like her feisty mother (Deborah Shay-McCarty), a single nurse who supports Lu Ann and her drunken, abusive brother Skip (Sean O'Shea). Lu Ann thinks she's found her ticket out with a visit from Skip's truck driving Army buddy, Dale Laverty (David West).

In Act II, 10 years have passed and we find the recently divorced Lu Ann Laverty a feisty barfly, struggling to raise her daughter on her skimpy beautician's wages. Her starched white uniform conveys all the implicit comparison with her mother that we need (thanks to Mary Gibson's costume design).

Still attractive and self-assured, Lu Ann gets plenty of attention from the town's male population, especially the equally spunky Corky Oberlander (Jake Lewis).

By Act III, another decade finds Lu Ann Oberlander once again single, trying to cope with her teen-age daughter (Lekesha Beebe) and keep a caved-in Skip off the bottle.

In the saddest possible way--the quiet, inevitable suffocation of her youthful spirit--she has become her mother.

The production features uniformly capable performances, but McFadden is a standout in her ability to evoke Lu Ann's successive life stages. She also reveals the unconquered core of optimism that keeps Lu Ann worth caring about--never more than with her response to the stroke that has paralyzed her mother ("Hell, my mama ain't no vegetable--she's a flower, a great old big pretty flower").

The details are drawn with a penetrating eye for symbolic overtones that are given full weight in Kathy Biesinger's direction without disrupting the naturalistic flow and pacing.

This is a portrait of lives rather than dramatic incidents. By having the pivotal events occur offstage, Jones keeps the focus on their consequences--the daily routine in which most of our lives are played out.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander," performed through May 8 at the Santa Barbara City College Studio Theatre, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12-14. Call (805) 965-5935 for reservations or further information.

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