Rebels with a Cause, Sort Of

Singing the soda-fountain blues in VLT’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Over the course of his long and storied career, maverick American director Robert Altman reeled off a handful of cinematic corkers: Nashville, M*A*S*H, Gosford Park. Among Altman’s lesser films, sandwiched between Popeye (yes, Popeye!) and Streamers, is an adapted play with the sesquipedalian title of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Folks of a certain age probably recall Cher in that one. And, like me, you may also remember it, vaguely, as a musical along the lines of Hairspray. But it wasn’t, and isn’t.

That the Very Little Theatre — which seems to choose its productions quite strategically — has opted to mount a production of Ed Graczyk’s 1976 play likely has as much to do with Altman’s enduring influence as it does with the play’s mildly shocking sexual and political content. Graczyk’s play is a sort of anti-nostalgia piece, set in a small, depopulated Texas town where, in the nearby town of Marfa, James Dean’s final movie, Giant, was filmed. The play’s slight narrative centers on the 20-year reunion at Woolworths of the Disciples of James Dean, a group of friends whose worship of the tragic icon brought them together in high school.

It’s no wonder Altman, with his penchant for directing ensemble pieces with lots of cross-talk and subtext, was drawn to Graczyk’s play, which traffics in the smaller pleasures of drama. The play is short on fireworks. This is not to say it lacks appeal; rather, its appeals are somewhat windy and soporific. You have to be in the mood. VLT director Karen Scheeland does a credible job navigating some of the play’s technical and aesthetic difficulties, the most challenging of which is keeping the jumps between 1955 and 1975 clear and fluid (the two generations often occupy the stage simultaneously).

Come Back to the Five and Dime, etc., is a talky, meandering play executed in close quarters and no easy task for an actor. If some clunky delivery and dicey movement (careful on that ladder!) occurred the Thursday I attended, for the most part everyone performed admirably. The small cast includes Shamra Clark (Edna Louise), Sarah Etherton (Stella May), Sabra Slade (Sissy), Sean Dugan as the sexually confused teenager Joe and Nancy Hopps as Mona, who is inextricably and mysteriously linked to Joe. In the role of the shopkeeper Juanita, actor Gloria Lagalo perfectly captures the pinched Christian denial of a widow living in la-la land, and Naomi Todd is nicely skittish in the role of young Mona. Good as always is Sarah Glidden as young Sissy and Tere Tronson is vampishly enigmatic as Joanne.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean runs through June 15 at the Very Little Theatre; $12-$17.