The Justice Theater Project’s current production of James McLure’s Laundry and Bourbon is as potent as a 180-proof triple shot of bourbon whiskey, straight. Ostensibly a knee-slapping Southern-fried comedy about three gossipy housewives in tiny Maynard, Texas, this three-character play takes a serious turn when their freewheeling conversation turns from catty comments about each other, their feckless husbands, and their irritating kids to sober speculation on what’s wrong with Elizabeth Caulder’s hard-drinking, skirt-chasing husband, Roy, who hasn’t been home in two days.
Roy Caulder is the much-discussed but never-seen “Elephant in the Room” — in this case, the cluttered back porch — of the rundown clapboard house that he shares with Elizabeth when he’s not out, tooling around Maynard in his cherished pink 1959 Thunderbird convertible, ogling other women, and looking to drown his Vietnam flashbacks and his current worries in an ocean of Lone Star beer. Roy hasn’t been right since he came back from Vietnam two years ago, and he is about to step on Elizabeth’s last nerve, while he is drinking himself into oblivion. Yet she loves him anyway, truly, madly, deeply; and there are growing signs that Roy is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome — but the problem of PTSD is not yet well known on the scorching summer afternoon in 1974 when the play takes place.
Betsy T. Henderson portrays the increasingly troubled Elizabeth Caulder with admirable grit and a reservoir of feelings that run bone deep, passions that are not often expressed out loud. Elizabeth is watching her marriage circle the drain, and grasping desperately for any straw that can rescue it from the whirlpool of sex and alcohol into which Roy has plunged headfirst.
Henderson is the perfect straight (wo)man for Canady Vance Thomas, who is a pip as Elizabeth’s potty-mouthed lifelong best friend and confidant Hattie Dealing. Having dumped her little no-neck monsters Cheryl and Vernon, Jr., on their hapless grandmother, Hattie is ready for an uninterrupted afternoon of girl-talk with Elizabeth, sitting outside, because the Caulders’ A/C is broken (again) and sipping bourbon and Coke while watching “Let’s Make a Deal” on the back-porch TV and poking mean-spirited fun at the over-caffeinated contestants on that popular game show.
Hattie is quite a handful, and Canady Thomas devours this meaty role with gusto, while Betsy Henderson paints her portrait of Elizabeth in subtler hues, only hinting at the heartbreak and desperation that lie just below the surface of her outward calm.
The arrival of stuck-up and snobbish Maynard socialite Amy Lee Fullernoy (played to prissy perfection by Rachel Green) interrupts Elizabeth and Hattie’s tête-à-tête and gives them a common enemy to mock. The surprise visit of the self-righteous Amy Lee is completely unexpected, not to mention unwelcome; and her real reason for being there has more to do with spite — she wants to drop the bomb on Elizabeth that Roy’s been seen all over town with other women not his wife — than with her claims that her family’s air-conditioning repair business dispatched her to deliver a new filter for the Caulders’ air-conditioner.
Justice Theater Project co-founder and artistic director Deb Royals-Mizerk stirs up the raw emotions in Laundry and Bourbon like a master chef, leavening belly-laughs with somber realizations that unless he changes his wanton ways, Roy and Elizabeth are on the verge of D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
The show’s ramshackle set and costumes, both designed by Royals-Mizerk, are fit for a trio of what Martha Stewart used to call Wal-Martians, before the giant discount store chain hired her. And sound designer Julie Jones accents the honky-tonk heartbreak of Laundry And Bourbon with classic country songs, such as Patsy Cline’s version of “Your Cheatin Heart” and, of course, “Stand by Your Man” by Tammy Wynette.
In Laundry And Bourbon, playwright James McLure captures the bloodied-but-unbowed spirit of rural small-town Texas while creating three of the funniest female characters to grace this or any other down-home comedy. Your evening (or afternoon) with Elizabeth, Hattie, and the insufferable Amy Lee will be well spent.
Laundry and Bourbon continues Sept. 18-20 and 25-27 in Pittman Auditorium at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh. See our Theatre Calendar for details.
Note 1: On Saturday, Sept. 26th, Dr. Greg Inman and Ray Koval of the Raleigh Veterans Association will lead a preshow discussion, starting at 7:30 p.m. Note 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC will audio-describe the 2 p.m. Sept. 27th performance.