There are all kinds of transporting, eye-opening theater in the world. Drama may be nearly mute, or rich in language; delicate and oblique, or larger than life with overscaled passions; straightforward, or packed with symbolism and metaphor; plainly staged, or exploding with special effects, song and dance. It may tell ancient stories anew; it might haul hidden stories into the light; it may use transgressive techniques to “break the fourth wall.”
Or, as in Durham’s Common Ground Theatre, it may be performed in so intimate a space that the fourth wall is behind the last row of the audience, who are snuggled together like old friends at a reunionperfect for Ghost & Spice’s production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which takes place in a tiny West Texas town just before and during the reunion of the “Disciples of James Dean” on the 20th anniversary of his death, and reaches back through those 20 years in memory.
As we all know, hidden stories come out at reunions. Some have really been secrets; sometimes the secret was that everyone knew all along. Come Back has both kinds. One of the main secrets is not so shocking as it was in 1983, before the discussion of the wide range of human sexualities was as open as it is now, but less shock allows more compassion for the failings, foibles and brave, frightened forays toward happiness made by the characters, whose efforts mirror our own.
This lovely 1982 script by Ed Graczyk, which dances along the line stretching from dream to delusion, and was made into a film of the same title in 1983 by Robert Altman, illustrates another distinction in theater, and does it with considerable wit: Come Back is an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle, and its continual references to James Dean’s blazing star only reinforce the interplay among the characters on stage. And what an ensemble is here! Directed by Tom Marriott with his usual empathetic subtlety, the show is human scale and free from stagy histrionics. The eight women and one young mansome mainstays of local theater; some newcomersgave a beautiful, touching and very funny performance on opening night. It had been several months since I so thoroughly enjoyed a play.
Working in a fine set by Jeff Alguire, supplemented with Rus Hames’ clever projections (where Altman had used mirrors) and good lighting, along with Becca Easley’s clear sound design, the actors were all fabulous in turn. Travis Edgerton, who celebrated his 17th birthday on opening night, gave a heart-tightening performance as Joe. Special notice must go to Katja Hill for her extraordinary control and subtlety, as well as her comedic timing as Edna Louise; and to Tracy Coppedge for her gorgeous, wide-open performance as Sissy. The final scene, when Melissa Lozoff as Mona and Rachel Klem as Joanne join Sissy in singing “Sincerely,” refurbishes faith in both art and forgiveness.