Review: 'Fix Me, Jesus' at Theatre Three
What is the price of having extremist political opinions on the children of a family? If children are what they see and hear growing up, can they be faulted for the outcomes in their own lives?
It was the beginning of a recession in Dallas, which had flowered for decades with oil and real estate booms, but by the mid-80s big oil moved to Houston and real estate dried up. Ronald Regan’s presidency caused a political sea change from a strong democratic stronghold in Dallas to the solid red state conservatism that rules today. For those who were in the money and part of the Dallas political machine, the recession hit hard, financially and emotionally, and the political winds of change came as a shock.
Fix Me, Jesus is a comic look at this time of Dallas history through the eyes of author, Helen Sneed. Her own life in Texas politics gave her a unique inside view of the families who were caught up in this turmoil. Fix Me, Jesus, which premiered in late 2013 opened its Southwestern Premier at Theatre Three in the Quadrangle tonight, which is a bit surprising since the action takes place in Neiman Marcus at Northpark mall in 1986. It’s been a long time coming home.
Annabell Armstrong is trying to find independence from her family and some political power in her beloved Democratic Party. Yet in a moment of existential crisis in the women’s dressing room, she finds her political career, love life, finances, and family are failing. And in the process, she discovers a cast of uninvited and largely unwanted memories who remind her of why she’s in this situation. The lessons are comical, shocking and touching.
Emily Scott Banks directed Fix Me, Jesus. Her choices for designers and production crew created a great setting, the Neiman Marcus dressing room where Annabell spent much of her childhood. Bruce R. Coleman, as scenic designer, and his crew of builders and painters filled the stage floor with a believable dressing room. I know this because I went in some of those in my younger days in the 80s. With pink and gray checkerboard tile flooring, gray leather seating benches and urn like sculptures next to silvered floor-length mirrors, the look set an immediate tone for high decadence and consumerism that was the style of Dallas then. Is it all that different today? This setting was then filled by Jennifer Woodward, Props Master, with various design items and props that showed visually the accoutrements of Annabell’s life.
Carl Munoz’s lighting made this set very bright and brought out its subtle colors. He also created a see-through mirror in a dressing room doorway to allow characters from the past entry to the set. Andi Allen’s sound design included music of the 80s and sound effects from the mall, especially store announcements from Neiman Marcus. I don’t know who the recorded announcer was, but he was believable and his announcements provided important time and context for the story.
Ryan Matthieu Smith designed costumes with the challenge that this was Neiman Marcus, the mecca for elegant dress in Dallas, and these people used the ritzy super store like most people use Target or Walmart today. Annabell wanted to find a dress for an evening gala, and there were a lot to try on. Party dresses, luxury dresses, elegant evening gowns, fur coats, with many colors and styles, they were always coming and going and Annabell was not finding any. There was a mother, who wore various types of rich looking dresses, especially her purple silk gown with gaudy diamond necklace, and a grandmother who most always wore black, though very rich black. Annabell as a child wore numerous little pieces that told us Annabell was used to fancy clothing from the beginning.
Emily Scott Banks also cast a group of actors who could take on the personalities of these flawed characters and provide shocking revelations all the while making us laugh about them. Only Annabell and Mrs. Craig were real during the time of this play. The rest of the characters were flash-backs to as early as 1963 or as late as a few days before the night in Neiman Marcus. The director had to integrate these memory characters into the action that was happening on this night, and this mostly happened by suspending the adult Annabell, though there were times when characters played out scenes from an earlier time or even interacted with her in the current time. But the time shifting all worked, as I never lost touch with what was current and what was in a previous time.
Mother, that is Annabell’s mother, played by Sherry Hopkins, was caught up in the political machine of her own family and had to scratch for independence while living in the lap of luxury. Hopkins did a good job of giving Mother a lot of unstated resentments against her husband and her daughter, along with a rash of effects from growing up with her own mother, called Grandmother in this story. With a steady diet of criticism about weight and looks aimed at Annabell from an early age, Hopkins showed us the origin of some of the challenges in Annabell’s life, one that reared its ugly head in the dressing room in Neiman Marcus. In time, Hopkins revealed Mother’s own inner crisis and the origins of her deepest fears about her husband, as she first confides in her own mother, with disastrous results and then as she provides advice to her own daughter, again with disastrous results. But through Hopkins’ emotional range we could see her quietly seething about her life under her tough exterior.
Shane Beeson played Doctor Maxwell Feld, a New Yorker who came to Texas to put his own form of psychological therapy into practice. Feld was experiencing his own family and professional crises and those affected Annabell. Beeson played Feld as a low-key doctor-type with calm voice and minimal movement, but his therapy with Annabell changed him too and Beeson showed this self-delusion and subsequent turmoil in the doctor’s feelings for Annabell, his patient.
Young Annabell was played by Sydney Noelle Pitts, a beautiful, precocious 5th grader with a real sense and comfort for the stage. While characterization of Young Annabell was mostly as recipient of vitriol by her Mother or Grandmother, Pitts seemed to have a presence on-stage that allowed us to fully accept her real and imagined appearances. I particularly liked how she handled timeline shifts as she sometimes came in during an earlier time and sometime during that night in the dressing room. In some ways, the memory of Young Annabell was a comfort and advisor to adult Annabell.
Brandi Andrade played Mrs. Craig, the Neiman Marcus sales lady who had worked with Annabell and her family for decades and knew the soul of Annabell more than anyone. Andrade gave Mrs. Craig just the right amount of deference to Annabell and her family as customers and cultural superiors, but showed an equal amount of love and care, and a bit of tough love, for Annabell. Mrs. Craig was Annabell’s mentor and maybe the only one who loved her for who she was. In time we learned of Mrs. Craig’s own crisis of conscience, but we identified with her completely because Andrade infused her with the spirit of a spiritual guide, albeit one who deals in $3,000 dresses.
I think the most difficult role was played by Gene Raye Price. Grandmother was the grand dame of the family, a political powerhouse in the community. She wielded an enormous weight with Annabell as the child grew and we began to see the origin of both Mother’s and Annabell’s emotional turmoil. Grandmother was everything Archie Bunker aspired to, but was much more expansive in her prejudice against everyone. Her bible and sole example of virtuous living was “Gone With the Wind,” the true description of Southern living. Price had the challenge of saying the vitriol all of us swear we never would think in a way that was believable. I applaud her success. Grandmother’s constant stream of judgements against every group or class of people who were known in the 80s was very uncomfortable in the audience, yet there was just enough humor included in Sneed’s text that we could laugh about it a bit while squirming. I’d like to think that if you were alive in this audience, you were insulted by something she said. And Price sold it. I don’t think there was a moment of shock that I thought was a put-on by Grandmother. It all seemed to be part of her persona, and an explanation of why Mother and Annabell had such emotional scars to overcome.
Brett Warner was Annabell, the child of this dysfunctional family. The crisis of the evening was about choosing a dress, something we could laugh off if we hadn’t seen it so often in shows like Say Yes to the Dress and Hot Wives of (insert name of town here). But we learned in time that the issues were much bigger than a dress. Warner showed us the actions of a nervous and self-loathing, but up and coming, powerhouse in Dallas democratic politics. Her father, who never appears, is none-the-less a powerful motivator for Annabell’s life and actions. He’s the one she most needs to love her, though there’s a tryst with the therapist to substitute for Father. I’m not sure who was the more anti-hero, Grandmother or the unseen Father. Neither author Sneed nor Warner, in her character choices, made this clear, so we were left to decide on our own who was the biggest threat against her. But Warner played out Annabell’s meltdown, which neared death, with great passion. Annabell’s self-deprecating and painfully funny pronouncements to Mrs. Craig both revealed her underlying hurt, while making us laugh at the situation.
Perhaps a motivation of showing this play right now was the political climate we’re experiencing. For Annabelle, who is steeped in democratic politics, the major crisis came after an election in which her get-out-the-vote efforts embarrassed the family and especially her father. And yet, it was the political speech Warner gave as Annabell before a large black church that thrilled me, and maybe Warner’s shining moment. Her political speech reminded me that I wish more of our candidates talked like that. Her moment of deepest despair with a gun in her hand was also poignant, viscerally scary, and powerful as a possible outcome of any existential crisis we may experience. I think Brett Warner may have been the perfect actor to play this part.
This story started out to be a bit fluffy, a cute little story about a funny night in Neiman Marcus. It set me back when the story turned both sad and a little dangerous. Fix Me, Jesus, was not fluffy and it wasn’t about Jesus. It was about the human side of prejudice, the dysfunction of families and the devastating effects on children. It was about political discourse and how even reasonable people can disagree violently with people they love. And it was also a funny look at a time in Dallas that wasn’t that long ago, but seems so distant now.
I don’t know how anyone else will react to this story and I think it’s open to different interpretations. But I do think anyone who sees it will walk away thinking of their own lives or those of people they know. It will cause them to think, long after it’s over. Make a date to see Fix Me, Jesus at Theatre Three.