There are plays that make you cry and plays that make you laugh till you cry. And then there is Del Shores' "The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife," which does both -- sometimes in the space of a single sentence.
In a spot-on staging at the Zephyr Theatre, this new play introduces more of the humorously off kilter Texas types who populated such Shores comedies as "Daddy's Dyin' (Who's Got the Will?)" and "Sordid Lives." The circumstances this time, however, are no laughing matter. The central character is a battered wife, and in a feat of breathtaking audacity, Shores plunges audiences into her harrowing existence while keeping everyone laughing at the everyday humor that can sprout like flowers in even the most desolate, weed-choked life.
The action unfolds at several locations in a small Texas town, but the main portion of Robert Steinberg's set depicts the inviting if less-than-elegant trailer of Willadean and J.D. Winkler. Willadean (Beth Grant) is vivacious, quietly religious and altogether devoted to her onetime football hero of a husband, now an asphalt hauler. J.D. doesn't allow her to work, so she spends most afternoons watching talk shows with best friend LaSonia (Octavia Spencer).
When conversation turns to their new neighbor, a hardened beauty who's always dressed in too-short shorts and midriff-baring tops, LaSonia -- whose tongue is as sharp as a bowie knife -- lets rip with, "Well, she is trash that will not burn." At that moment, J.D. (David Steen) is at the bar where that neighbor, Rayleen (Dale Dickey), works, peppering her with pickup lines.
Arriving home later, J.D. finds fault with Willadean's every effort, aiming his words like slaps. Soon he's delivering the real thing.
Even after such painful events, Shores, directing his own play, manages to restore equilibrium. Blues numbers -- sung by Debby Holiday, to Joe Patrick Ward's piano accompaniment -- provide running commentary while also helping to bridge the action.
A couple of scenes need trimming, the momentum hits a false stop before intermission and a key event is too easy to see coming. But Grant -- radiant and resolute -- keeps us so wrapped up in Willadean's life that such flaws ultimately don't matter.
"I am not gonna shrivel up and die," she keeps telling herself, and we pray that she's right.
'Trailer Trash Housewife'
What: "The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife"
Where: Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A.
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.
Ends: May 4
Price: $25 to $28
Contact: (323) 655-TKTS
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes