Nobody passes out cold like Voices of the South actor Jenny Odle Madden. She begins Act 2 of Jerre Dye's new play Distance asleep in a chair, and one doesn't have to be especially empathetic to feel the physical and mental exhaustion she's projecting through the back wall of TheatreSouth. Anybody who's nursed a friend or family member through end-of-life dementia will recognize the look immediately. And Madden nails it, just as she nails every aspect of her role as a daughter dutifully, if not always lovingly, caring for a mother who was difficult even before she started losing her mind.
Distance, the second phase of a unique project that invited Voices of the South audiences to choose characters they wanted to see together in a full-length play, is still a work in progress. Some pieces of the story don't fit together comfortably, but rough edges and all, it's still the most mature, satisfying work that Dye, an increasingly recognized playwright, has turned in to date. Every actor cast in his deeply Southern, bracingly funny meditation on age, identity, and the fragile nature of reality, has embraced the material he's provided for them and made it sing. Cecelia Wingate, nominated for a Jeff Award for her ghost-and-weed haunted performance in Dye's breakout play Cicada, is terrific as a personal caregiver awakening to her own self-worth, and Steve Swift is characteristically charming as a hairdresser with a heart of gold. Jon Castro's very funny, surprisingly touching performance as a video game-obsessed millennial threatens to cross the line into caricature but never quite does. And Jo Lynne Palmer, one of Memphis' most consistently interesting performers, delivers an unforgettable performance as an angry, frustrated woman caught waiting at an imaginary train station between helpless second childhood and oblivion. Dye wrote the role with Palmer's voice in mind, and in exchange for the gift, she is absolutely fearless in the role.
The Heiress director Tony Isbell asks: "What's wrong with a little melodrama?"
In his day, author Henry James, who wrote the play's source material, would probably give Isbell an answer he wouldn't like. The Washington Square author grew to hate the simplicity of his story. His inability to love the slender, unaffected novel is especially ironic, considering it tells the story of Catherine Sloper, a cripplingly shy woman who is ultimately unable to love because she was perceived as being plain and unclever and grew up unloved as a result. Fortunately, the author's straightforward portrait of a woman struggling with cultural expectations still captures our imagination. It's helped along in no small part by solid to stellar acting and an attractive set and costume design.
Isbell appeared in Theatre Memphis' landmark 1986 revival of the show. He starred as Morris Townsend opposite Christina Wellford Scott, who has also returned in a supporting role in this production. Their collective experience is felt in a play that feels grounded and complete.
The Heiress is set in New York in the 1850s, and the story goes something like this: Sloper's mother died in childbirth, and as a result, her father, a successful and worldly doctor, sees his daughter as the person who murdered his happiness. Worse, the daughter (so unlike the mother) has the audacity to be plain and ungraceful, with no great ear for music or conversation. Worst of all, she's beguiled by Townsend, a charming but unemployed young profligate who may actually love her a little but is fantasizing openly about the prospects of a wife worth $30,000 a year.
There is something uncommonly likeable about actor Barclay Roberts. You can cast him as a complete scumbag, but no matter how vile his character, there's always something that makes you want to give the guy a hug. That intrinsically squeezable quality brings warmth to Dr. Sloper that may or may not really be there. It's one of Roberts' most convincing efforts.
Memphis newcomer Michelle Miklosey is especially good at showing audiences just how debilitating shyness can be. Ann Sharp, a Theatre Memphis mainstay, provides comic relief as Catherine's compulsively romantic aunt.
To answer Isbell's original melodrama question: When it's presented this thoughtfully, there's nothing wrong with it at all.