Cindee Mayfield’s brilliant performance as a woman on the verge gives ‘Trailer Trash Housewife’ the resonance of great tragedy — Texas-style
Del Shores would probably be the first to admit that he has issues. (Most writers do.) In his plays, he’s dealt routinely with Southern Gothic family discord, murder/suicide and sexual confusion. Oh, and he has some strong feelings about religious fundamentalism. Not a big fan of it, he.
But despite many dark recesses lurking in his plays, poking out at shocking times (sometimes with melodramatic flair), you’d sure lump "Daddy’s Dyin’…," "Sordid Lives" and "Southern Baptist Sissies" into the genre of "comedy."
That’s harder to do with "The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife," now in a regional premiere from Uptown Players.
The phrase "trials and tribulations" sounds quainter than what befalls the title character, Willadean Winkler (Cindee Mayfield). After 30 years married to the brutish J.D. (T.A. Taylor), Willi has been beaten down like a mutt at the Michael Vick Animal Shelter. She steals moments watching talk shows with her best friend and neighbor, LaSonia (played with Wanda Sykes-like sass by Laura Warner), and has to hide Oprah Magazine from her husband to avoid the back of his hand. She’s forbidden from discussing her gay son, who moved as far as he could away from his embarrassing background.
So severe are her circumstances that when an old TV blows a circuit, it triggers not a Jeff Foxworthy redneck joke ("if you have a TV on top of another TV…"), but a working-class panic attack that sends Willi into a wheezing fit, fearing for her safety.
Hardly the stuff of comedy.
And yet, for all its intense scenes of the more prosaic form of domestic terrorism, "Trailer Trash Housewife" does manage to squeeze tons of humor out of all the direness. Of course there’s Shores’ distinctive Texas twang (it’s set in nearby Ennis) permeating the dialogue. ("I can’t wrap my mind around fish tacos — fish doesn’t belong in a taco!" complains one character to howls of laughter.) But we get more than just jokes; this is an insightful, personal story that resonates thunderously.
It may be Shores’ best play. He explores a Chekhovian structure, turning commonplace events into the stuff of great tragedy. Often, that means scenes stretch out longer than necessary as character is slowly revealed. And the ending ventures into the overwrought, if justifiably so (think "Streetcar"). But along the way, he generally avoids allowing his anger to overwhelm his characters, allowing the boil to capture Director Cheryl Denson has worked her magic here as well — especially with the cast. Everyone is in top form. As Rayleen, a trampy cocktail waitress in a dingy thong visible through worn cut-off jeans, ("trash that will not burn," Willi calls her), Melissa Jobe delivers a bravely vanity-free performance. Her smeared blue eyeliner and pasty skin tell you everything you need to know about her; just watching her for two hours made me want to go on a Z-Pack immediately after. Taylor is scarily familiar as a drunken bully who deflects all responsibility away from himself.
But it is Mayfield, her face sunken and sallow, her body looking frail and coiled with tension, who makes "Trailer Trash" unmissable. Like some great silent screen star, Mayfield barely needs to speak in order to convey her abiding fragility … then when she does speak, her voice quakes with emotion. Watching her transformation from wallflower to empowered modern woman is both glorious and heartbreaking.
"I’m not gonna shrivel up and die," Willi repeats as her mantra, hoping to survive mentally as much as physically. Her victory is the victory of everyone who finally stood firm and decided to live.
KD Studio Theatre, 2600 N. Stemmons Expressway, Suite 180. Through Mar. 15. $25â€“$30. Uptownplayers.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 20, 2009.