nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 5, 2005
Trailerville, the first play by novelist John Dufresne, is all about love, in all its flavors: first love, unrequited love, unbridled passion, doomed young love, the love of parents for an adult child they don’t really understand, the love that grows over time in a marriage, love that is blind to the beloved’s faults (even if no one else is), and ultimately, what it means to love yourself. This may sound like a recipe for heartwarming romantic comedy, so let me note that one of Dufresne’s strengths as a novelist is his ability to undercut sentimentality with black humor; that talent is in evidence here as well. But Trailerville is also a very sad play, because it acknowledges that love is messy and complicated and often hurts as much as—or more than—it heals.
The play takes place over Labor Day Weekend in the courtyard between two mobile homes in a northern Louisiana trailer park. One is occupied by the sprawling, multigenerational brood of Pug, a goodhearted party girl who’s constantly trying to make lemonade out of the lemons she’s picked. The ménage includes Pug’s three kids by two different fathers (Theron, 14, and young twins who are never seen onstage); Bromo, a live-in boyfriend of questionable usefulness; and Arlis, Pug’s father, himself divorced twice and seemingly somewhat down on his luck.
The other is occupied by the remains of a more conventional family: Merdelle and Bobby, a retired couple who’ve sold the family home to their son, Willis, and his wife, Kitty Bit. Married straight out of high school, Merdelle and Bobby have weathered forty years of a relationship built as much on societal expectations as on passion, but no less solid and loving for that. Bobby has Alzheimer’s, and Merdelle’s every waking moment has become devoted to keeping him safe, clothed, and clean, and trying to jumpstart his failing memories of the life they’ve shared. “I used to have a husband,” she says. “Now I have a puppy.”
On top of all that, Theron is in love—for the very first time—with Kristie, who might be moving away on Tuesday; Willis and Kitty Bit have found Jesus and wish everyone else would too; Bromo wants Arlis to move out of Pug’s trailer now that he’s moved in; and Arlis has fallen in love with Merdelle.
Although a lot of things happen over the course of the two days depicted, from the trivial—Pug’s daughter’s favorite doll goes missing—to the significant—Bobby’s continuing decline causes several injuries—the real action of the piece is in the unfolding of the relationships and the characters. It’s heartbreaking to watch Bobby slip in and out of lucidity, sometimes aware of how much he’s lost and at other times perfectly content to have no idea who or where he is. And it’s also exquisitely painful to watch Merdelle holding photographs under his nose, trying to force him to remember their life together because she needs his memories to validate her own existence. Meanwhile, Arlis waits on the periphery, wanting to help Merdelle, but having no real understanding of how and why she loves Bobby, still.
Dufresne has done a wonderful job creating a full slate of characters who skate to the edge of stereotype and then reveal complexity and richness. (And Martin T. Lopez’s costumes illustrate fine details of character perfectly.) Dufresne shows the foibles and flaws of his characters without ever condescending to them. These are people who dream of “a house with a foundation,” whose expectations are low but who don’t feel small. This is especially true of Pug and Bromo, who could easily just be cookie-cutter background figures to the love triangle at the play’s center, but instead become a life force—they can be crass, they don’t make the best choices, and in fact Bromo is often an insensitive jerk, but they’re full of passion, lust, and fun. It never seems like entirely a good idea that they’re together, but they’re sure having a good time.
The rich characters are complemented by strong acting across the board. Ron Faber (Bobby), Ann Hillary (Merdelle), and Peter Waldren (Arlis), in particular, give nuanced performances that show off every shade of the conflicted emotions these people feel. Michelle Ammon (Kitty Bit) and Erik Kever Ryle (Willis) are very, very funny as the sanctimonious, allergic, upright members of the community who don’t quite know what to make of anything that goes on at Trailerville. Lenore Zann (Pug) fills the stage with contagious energy, and Christian Kohn makes believable Bromo’s combination of cynic and redneck. The two teenagers, Greta Sleeper (Kristie) and Miles Purinton (Theron), are awkward and self-conscious in exactly the right adolescent way.
Director Wayne Maugans manages the potential chaos—nine actors, a fairly small stage, a slew of realistic props—with a firm hand, keeping the staging clean and simple. Maugans was instrumental in making this play happen—it was at his invitation that Dufresne wrote a play at all—and I think the involvement of a director throughout the process helped Dufresne avoid some of the common pitfalls of fiction-writers-turned-playwrights. Although there is the occasional literary flourish, the play is remarkably free of unnecessary exposition, and very rarely narrates what it should be showing. This writer has learned quickly to trust actors, and I think the director is also to be credited for that.
In the end, that trust in the actors—and in the unique ability of theatre to force audiences to confront emotion—is what makes the play work. Seen strictly on the page, for example, much of Bobby’s behavior reads as black comedy. But mixed with the fleeting expression of sheer terror that crosses Faber’s face, another ingredient is added to the mix—and it’s that wonderful, terrible line between laughing and crying that this play traverses so well.