Elisabeth Gray is a gifted writer and performer, and an ambitious producer. A Southern native who first took to the Asheville Community Theatre stage as a 16-year-old Asheville High School student (in Look Homeward, Angel, directed by Ralph Redpath, director of Southern (dis)Comfort), Gray trained at England’s Oxford University, has toured widely since, and has won a number of British acting accolades, particularly for Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, a solo show written by Edward Anthony that debuted in 2007 as part of the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival.
Now Gray is the artistic director of New Umbrella, Inc., which is presenting Southern (dis)Comfort in conjunction with ACT. Next month, New Umbrella and ACT will offer Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, also at 35below, before New Umbrella takes the show Off-Broadway in the fall.
Like Sylvia Plath, Southern (dis)Comfort is a solo show, though rather than one story, it’s a series of vignettes. According to a program note, the work evolved out of Gray’s “desire to explore a humorous, tragic, and honest vision of the South I grew up in and the fascinating people who inhabit it. The challenge and the fun of the project has been to discover compassion for characters who — on the surface, at least — warrant none, who would be overlooked by an outsider as slovenly or boring or materialistic or racist or demented — you name it.” She also wished to explore a particularly Southern form of loneliness, as identified by such writers as Tennessee Williams and Walker Percy.
Beginning with a brief evocation of memory — presented, somewhat oddly, with the hint of a British accent — Southern (dis)Comfort, which runs just over an hour, consists of five pieces about five very different people: a 61-year-old trucker; a 27-year-old woman obsessed with her appearance; a 56-year-old widower; a 42-year old member of the Olive Branch Mississippi Women’s Historical Society; and a 91-year-old woman in a nursing home.
Using minimal set and costume changes, performed languorously in full view, Gray is in no way flashy and makes minimal vocal adjustments of timbre and accent, yet she is professionally credible in each of her roles. No attempt is made to tie these characters’ stories to each other in any narrative sense; the only connection is the thematic one expressed in the program note.
There is, however, a still more significant connection (besides the actress), in that each monologue is constructed in essentially the same way: a somewhat preposterous person and/or situation creates a distance between the audience and the character, frequently provoking laughter, and that distance is bridged by an O.Henry-like twist, which humanizes the character and occasionally provokes tears (or, depending on your temperament, additional laughter). The language, too, is patterned, with ordinary speech prevailing but often compressed epigrammatically, so that several times in each sequence a phrase will catch the ear and impress with comedy, sagacity, or both.
In “Big Jim’s Tow & Go,” trucker Tommy Stutts picks up a pretty young hitchhiker who turns out to be an occasional porn actress, which provokes Stutts into a reminiscence of his own love live, which is primarily comic but ends with a revelation of loneliness and despair.
“Crooked,” winner of the One-on-One National Monologue Competition and the standout of the evening, finds Julia Hanover in a plastic surgeon’s office, chatting away with another unseen patient, slowly revealing the toll on her life and, oddly, on her cat, taken by lifelong distress about one eye being ever so slightly out of line with the other.
William Ernest Fells, the middle-aged engineer of “Gymnasium Eulogy,” offers a dispassionate review of his late wife’s life and their life together; the eulogy, always awkwardly at odds with Fells’ mostly mechanical presentation, becomes increasingly absurd with progressively unpleasant revelations.
Cheri Kane, of “Olive Branch Mississippi Women’s Historical Society,” is very excited to have helped make an exception to the rules in order to welcome the society’s first African-American member, though the pleasure she takes in this historic accomplishment is sadly at odds with the ingrained racism Kane inadvertently reveals with each freighted phrase.
Finally, “The Odyssey of Dementia” begins with an elderly woman who appears to be caught up in the world only to be revealed as suffering from … dementia.
Each of these monologues has its moments (and, in the first three, more than that), but the similarity of narrative approach makes the evening feel longer than it is, and the concluding pieces are too overt and, in terms of their revelations, inconsequential to rise to the level of drama. As a writer, Gray appears to have accomplished what she set out to do without creating a truly satisfying whole. One trusts that, next time, she’ll create a knockout. (Her bio states that she’s been commissioned “to write a play about Emily Dickinson traveling in a time portal to become Bob Dylan,” which will simply have to be seen.)
Southern (dis)Comfort, presented at 35below by New Umbrella, Inc. and Asheville Community Theatre. Written and performed by Elisabeth Gray. Directed by Ralph Redpath. Set design by Shane Meador. Costume design by George W. Martinat. Lighting design by Nicole Blastow. Thursday through Saturday through June 26. 7:30 p.m. $15.