Fantasy is a powerful force that can sometimes keep us from enjoying what is right in front of us. Most of us learn to put our dreams off to the side – but others sometimes let their obsessions overwhelm them.
With inspired directing and a superb cast, the New Phoenix Theatre Company’s “Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” provides a sublime study of the past haunting the present. With the raw power of its heartfelt performances expertly directed by Richard Lambert, this production is simply scintillating.
At the heart of Ed Graczyk’s plays lies a split in time: even as a group of old friends meet in 1985 for a 30th anniversary of their Disciples of James Dean fan club, their hearts and minds look back to 1955. It was back then that Dean, who had filmed “Giant” near their small town of McCarthy, Texas, died in a car crash.
Director Lambert breathes uncanny life into this tale of dark secrets and happy nostalgia, through a powerful theatrical effect: even as we focus on friends meeting in 1985 in a curiously out-of-date five-and-dime store, we see the people and events of 1955 occupying the same time and place.
Making excellent use of lighting effects (designed by Chris Cavanagh) and a bright and spacious set (designed by Paul Bostaph), Lambert breaks down the borders between past and present. This enables the talented cast to tell a complex story of two eras in a single, breathtaking spectacle.
Central to the play’s success are powerful performances by Jessie Miller and Lara Haberberger, each playing Mona. Alternating between a bright-eyed dreaminess and a nervous melancholy, Miller makes the 1955 Mona the bittersweet heart of a story about obsession. Anxious and volatile, Haberberger’s 1985 Mona conveys the pain and sorrow of a repressed life: her preference for cinematic fantasy over reality alienated her from herself and from her son.
Lambert makes powerful use of these dual Monas: past and present from a higher, tragic unity by sharing the stage. It is heart-rending to see the 1985 Mona chasing the ghost of the boy whom she had betrayed, even as the 1955 Mona comforts the wronged Joe (played with quiet power by Dylan Brozyna), who would suffer for years because of her fixation with James Dean.
While every actor is excellent, three other performances must be singled out. Lisa Ludwig is riveting as the foul-mouthed, vivacious Sissy, especially when she delivers an impassioned, moving speech about her life-altering mastectomy. Jamie Nablo shines as the younger Sissy, showing a fierce devotion to her friend Joe, who was sexually assaulted before leering townsfolk. The 1955 Sissy’s loyalty makes it all the more meaningful that Joe grew into the confident and graceful Joanne (Betsy Bittar), whose sex-change operation brought her to a place of healing and joy.
Mary Moebius also is excellent as Juanita, the judgmental owner of the five-and-dime. With a single swig of Jim Beam, Juanita signals her transformation, that fateful evening, from an absolutist Bible-thumper to a thoughtful figure who can accept both her dead husband’s alcoholism and her greatly changed town.
Despite its dark subject matter, the play offers some hope about nostalgia. In a powerful moment, those from 1955 and 1985 sing the fan club anthem together, showing the joy and community that can come from traditions and storytelling.
“Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 21 in the New Phoenix Theatre (95 Johnson Park). Tickets are $30 general, $20 for students and seniors; Thursdays are pay-what-you-can (box office, newphoenixtheatre.org).