Ladies of Eola Heights
nytheatre.com review by Steven Slate
August 12, 2007
If I had to use one word to describe this show I'd just have to say that it's fun. Ladies of Eola Heights is a dramedy with a special vibe to it. While watching it you can tell that playwright Michael Wanzie had fun writing it, and that the cast has a blast performing it. There is never a dull moment in this play, the Ladies are a riot—but they're real people too, and Wanzie makes the art of blending non-stop jokes with sensitive subject matter look almost effortless. When you pair writing of this quality with the over-the-top intensity this ensemble brings to the stage, you come out with a show that's definitely a must-see.
The show takes place in one setting, a home filled with boxes of products purchased from QVC. The premise is simple, three sisters and one brother/sister (more about this later) reunite after years apart to plan their father's funeral. The performers are in drag, and that's dangerous territory that could make a show into a simplistic one-note novelty, but that doesn't happen here. The ladies are ladies, and they deal with women's issues.
In the first scene, Pearl explains to her sister Ruby that their brother Jackson is now June, a drag queen who only communicates through song. June is the only character that really comes across as a man playing a woman. When this was introduced I quickly thought that this play would become a showcase for a bunch of drag routines, but it didn't. June's scenes are hilarious and serve the story quite well, the height of which is a scene where June and Ruby battle over a box of Life cereal. What I'm trying to say here is that the very novelty that could have bogged this show down does the exact opposite, energizing the show and fitting into it perfectly. The lip-synch segments are well timed, impeccably performed, and never overused.
As the Ladies reunite, we learn that they're dealing with some tough issues, and I was amazed at the lightning-fast pace with which the actors switch between drama and comedy modes. Wanzie is spot-on as Pearl, a quick-witted, nitrous, huffing, Hoveround-using Southern woman with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo. That's a mouthful—but so is this character, and as bizarre as she may be I still believed that she's a real person. The same goes for Tommy Wooten as Ruby and Miss Sammy as Jackson/June. Doug Ba'aser rounds out the cast as Opal, the stodgy conservative sister who serves as the perfect "straight man" for much of the show. But even she still gets her jabs out and garners a lot of laughs, again in a realistic way. At some point during a tense discussion of how their troubled childhood led her to a troubled adulthood Opal manages to say "I AM a Lifetime Television Movie for Women, Pearl. I watch those things all the time. How could I not have seen myself?" And this I think says a lot about the play. They manage to cover all the subject matter of made-for-TV movies in a way that is actually entertaining and doesn't feel sappy—these are real characters but they have a sense of humor about themselves that draws you in and never lets you go.
Ladies of Eola Heights is non-stop entertainment, it's masterfully written, and the cast has the type of chemistry that can't be duplicated. The audience went wild for the show and even gave it a well-deserved standing ovation. Hopefully this ensemble will tour or make it to Broadway, but until then you should go see this show now, you won't be disappointed.