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STAGE REVIEW

Bittersweet Dime-Store Dreams

April 09, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — It might seem odd that the best plays about Southern women, such as "The Glass Menagerie," are written by men, but the fact that the characters are dealt with in such loving terms is a tribute both to the women and the playwrights. Ed Graczyk's "Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," at the Long Beach Studio Theatre, is a perfect example.

Set in a five-and-dime emporium in McCarthy, Texas, the play tells the plaintive story of Mona, a woman who worships James Dean to such an extent that she has gilded her brief appearance as an extra in the movie "Giant" with the myth that her grown son, also called Jimmy Dean, is the late actor's. That he was conceived on the front porch of Reata, the false-front house used in a dark night of filming, is Mona's reason for living.

Director Marla Gam-Hudson and her exemplary cast understand that the icing on the comedy high-jinks that take place during Mona's 20th anniversary reunion of the Disciples of James Dean, at the dime store where she has spent her life, is a fable about dreams and reality, bitter truth and the need to escape, even in imagination, from the drabness of life.

The disciples wander in, braying and cackling about their great lives, bravado masking boredom. Mona (Susan K. Berkompas) is still playing out her sad dream, constantly worried about her son Jimmy Dean's retarded mind, also a part of her self-deception.

Her best friend, Sissy (Terra Shelman), proudly tells of her husband's moneymaking overseas job and of his great passion for her and her ample physical endowment. Store owner Juanita (Nicole Aloni) has her own myth about the goodness and piety of her late husband.

Gam-Hudson directs with insight, imperceptibly shifting from comedy to high drama and making the revelations subtle yet powerful. Berkompas, Shelman and Aloni give detailed and insightful performances.

*

Ricci Thomas and Sarah Paalman are colorfully right as, respectively, brash Stella Mae, whose marriage has surmounted every problem through a husband who can "smell oil" in the ground, and meek Edna Louise, who is blandly well on the way to having her seventh child.

Jill Cary Martin is affecting in the touchy and difficult role of Joanne, who seems terribly mysterious until her true identity becomes known.

There are flashbacks during the reunion, in which young Mona (Kathryn Velvel) and young Sissy (Tasha Witkin) go through telling and heartbreaking incidents. Velvel and Witkin are excellent, and Gam-Hudson has blended the older and younger versions with enough detail to make them believable.

Justin Eick appears only in the flashbacks, and effectively, as Joe, the sensitive boy who wanted to marry Mona but was forced to leave after being raped in front of the other townsmen by Sissy's pseudo-macho future husband, Lester T.

BE THERE

"Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," Studio Theatre, Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends April 18. (562) 494-1616. $10-$15. Running time: 2 hours.

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