‘Sweet Texas Reckoning’ has racism and homophobia plus a happy ending

 

Sweet Texas Reckoning at The Den. (Photo by Heather Mall)
Sweet Texas Reckoning at The Den. (Photo by Heather Mall)

2 1/2 stars

The word that keeps coming to mind, while watching Traci Godfrey’s story about a family reunion in Texas, is “cliched.” The hour-and-forty-five minutes spent with these four characters offers glimmers of brilliance but ultimately feels like a special Pride Month movie on the Lifetime Channel.

Had this “dramedy” been written by a playwright who could offer some honest, new insights into what makes people tick, especially in small, conservative towns, it would’ve been a far more honest portrayal. There’s a germ of a good idea here. But, in the hands of Horton Foote, Preston Jones or Tennessee Williams, this story wouldn’t be nearly as banal and stereotyped.

Set in the conservative, southeastern town of Sealy, Texas, Godfrey’s play is about a woman who for decades, has been drowning her guilt, bigotry and lies in her secret stash of bourbon.

Brought up as a strict southern Baptist and living in a red state, Ellie Westcott was carefully taught that anyone who was different was evil. She was brainwashed to believe that as a white, Christian woman, she was entitled to pass judgment over anyone from other races, nationalities, religions and sexual orientation.

This middle-aged widow has two adult children. Because of her biting prejudice and alcoholism we come to learn that her son, Baxter, has decided to keep his mother away from his Latina wife, small son and daughter.

Kate, her 30-year-old estranged daughter, is about to arrive from New York City for a long-overdue visit. But Ellie has more than just a simple reunion planned. She has matchmaking on her mind, since Ellie’s also invited good ol’ boy Alan John, Kate’s onetime boyfriend, to be at the house when her daughter arrives.

Confident that simply seeing AJ will rekindle old sparks of love, Ellie believes her divorced daughter will leave the Big Apple and settle down back in Texas. However, Ellie is about to learn some shocking, unexpected news about her daughter that she hadn’t anticipated.

The biggest problem with Traci Godfrey’s play is that there are very few surprises. Everything the audience expects to happen, does, and we can see each plot point and character reversal coming down the road from the beginning. Her characters don’t feel layered or three-dimensional, but come across more like stereotypes.

Despite everything talented director Julie Proudfoot attempts in guiding this Midwest Premiere production, her quartet of actors have to fight valiantly to keep from becoming caricatures.

Veteran thespian Molly Lyons is a terrific seasoned actress with an impressive resume of credits to her name. She’s also an actress who’s not shy about playing controversial roles; and in Ellie Westcott, Molly has her work cut out for her.

Lyons must portray a woman with strong opinions and a loose jaw, a lady who sees nothing wrong in the warped beliefs she’s grown up with despite an ever-changing world.

Ellie has to fight with all her might just to be courteous to Samantha, a young African-American dancer who arrives with Kate. When she discovers that Samantha is pregnant, but without a man in her life, Ellie sees this beautiful, eloquent young woman in an even different light.

But when she learns, much to her shock, that Sam and Kate are more than simply partners with the dance company, but are actually married, Ellie must face the fact that her daughter is gay.

There’s an even greater shock in store for this racist, homophobic, intolerant woman, but theatergoers will have to attend the play for that bit of news. Lyons has the challenging task of playing a woman the audience both sympathizes with and hates.

As Kate, Scottie Caldwell, a young actress who also sports an impressive roster of performances around Chicago, brings a particularly cool attitude to her character.

After years of separation, Caldwell’s Kate is understandably wary of what her mother will say and do when she learns the truth about her life. Godfrey has given Kate a few quiet moments, opportunities to reflect and not simply spout platitudes about race and gender.

Kate, her 30-year-old estranged daughter, is about to arrive from New York City for a long-overdue visit. But Ellie has more than just a simple reunion planned. She has matchmaking on her mind, since Ellie’s also invited good ol’ boy Alan John, Kate’s onetime boyfriend, to be at the house when her daughter arrives.

Confident that simply seeing AJ will rekindle old sparks of love, Ellie believes her divorced daughter will leave the Big Apple and settle down back in Texas. However, Ellie is about to learn some shocking, unexpected news about her daughter that she hadn’t anticipated.

The biggest problem with Traci Godfrey’s play is that there are very few surprises. Everything the audience expects to happen, does, and we can see each plot point and character reversal coming down the road from the beginning. Her characters don’t feel layered or three-dimensional, but come across more like stereotypes.

Despite everything talented director Julie Proudfoot attempts in guiding this Midwest Premiere production, her quartet of actors have to fight valiantly to keep from becoming caricatures.

Veteran thespian Molly Lyons is a terrific seasoned actress with an impressive resume of credits to her name. She’s also an actress who’s not shy about playing controversial roles; and in Ellie Westcott, Molly has her work cut out for her.

Lyons must portray a woman with strong opinions and a loose jaw, a lady who sees nothing wrong in the warped beliefs she’s grown up with despite an ever-changing world.

Ellie has to fight with all her might just to be courteous to Samantha, a young African-American dancer who arrives with Kate. When she discovers that Samantha is pregnant, but without a man in her life, Ellie sees this beautiful, eloquent young woman in an even different light.

But when she learns, much to her shock, that Sam and Kate are more than simply partners with the dance company, but are actually married, Ellie must face the fact that her daughter is gay.

There’s an even greater shock in store for this racist, homophobic, intolerant woman, but theatergoers will have to attend the play for that bit of news. Lyons has the challenging task of playing a woman the audience both sympathizes with and hates.

As Kate, Scottie Caldwell, a young actress who also sports an impressive roster of performances around Chicago, brings a particularly cool attitude to her character.

After years of separation, Caldwell’s Kate is understandably wary of what her mother will say and do when she learns the truth about her life. Godfrey has given Kate a few quiet moments, opportunities to reflect and not simply spout platitudes about race and gender.

Lovely, equally eloquent and graceful Anita Kavuu-Ng’ang’a, as Samantha, becomes the calm voice, the mediator in this family feud. She provides the wise eyes of a somewhat objective observer and offers good judgement and a lot of common sense to help diffuse the volatile situation.

And John Wehrman’s AJ, who begins the play as a likable, goofy redneck, suddenly explodes in rage and then runs off to buy biscuits and champagne. When he returns in Act II he’s a new man.

Suddenly, in the middle of the second act, Godfrey gives all of her characters their own “come to Jesus” moment. She provides a few opportunities for everyone to reflect, share some thoughts and then, suddenly, she gives us a happy ending. It’s all far too neat and opportune to be taken seriously.

Artemisia’s Midwestern Premiere of Traci Goldberg’s comedic drama strives, under the astute direction of Julie Proudfoot, to be a timely play. The trouble is that it tries to address too many issues, too quickly.

First, it’s a feminist play that deals with individual rights. It’s also about a gay character who not only bravely comes out to her prejudiced, narrow-minded mother, but admits that she’s married to an African-American woman. In addition, the happy couple is expecting their first child who may be bi-racial.

Then, there’s the whole issue of the mother’s troubled past relationship with her deceased husband, her son and his family who never actually appear in the play, but are discussed, at length. We also have the former boyfriend hanging around who’s been led to believe that everything will end happily ever after.

There’s just too much, and yet not enough, for an audience to become emotionally involved with these characters and their story. It’s all booze, racism and homophobia—all tied up with a happy ending.

DETAILS: “Sweet Texas Reckoning,” an Artemisia Theatre production, is at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, through June 30, 2019. Running time: 1 hr, 45 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 697-3830 or visit Artemisia Theatre.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

 

 

 

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