ivin’ Legend, “Miss Ditty Blalock”–the Grande Diva of the Devotional Hymn has a problem thornier than “Our Lord and Saviour’s” crown: Her trio of grown daughters are putting her (and each other) through Holy Hell! That’s the basic set-up of the Los Angeles premiere of “This Side Of Crazy” from noted Writer-Director Del Shores, which is making its debut at “The Zephyr Theatre” in West Hollywood, California. Directed by Shores himself, and presented by Beard/Collins/Shores Productions, “This Side Of Crazy” features four stage heavy-hitters: Dale Dickey, Bobbie Eakes, Sharon Garrison and Rachel Sorsa as a family of faded, feuding Gospel singers called to reunite for a big televised tribute to their celebrated matriarch on none other than the “Gospel Music Network”!
Uproariously funny, devastatingly authentic, and resolutely moving–practically beyond words, this latest chapter in the ‘Gospel according to Shores’ is a spot-on, slice-of-life ‘dramedy’ that returns to ground well-traversed by way of his previous stage endeavors such as “Daddy’s Dyin’ Who’s Got The Will”, “The Trials And Tribulations Of A Trailer Trash Housewife” and the cult-fave “Sordid Lives”. Each delves into the surprisingly complex lives (and secrets) of Southern families and now is certainly no different (–this one’s set in small town Kentucky,) while still remaining like nothing you would or even can expect—and that’s where its true magic lies. While the laughs are often sudden and substantial (as are the utterly unexpected dramatic twists and turns,) the humor surrounds–and commonly deflects, some pretty potent drama. Moreover, despite these lighter, comedic elements an additional spoiler alert may be in order hereabouts: the amusing moments often precede some pretty heady subjects frankly discussed or suggested, so this may be one that’s best enjoyed by mature audiences (or at least those with an open mind.) What is indisputable though–“This Side Of Crazy” lives up to that high standard set by Shores’ previous works. He knows this territory and these people and that’s how he so capably is able to introduce us to them here.
Naturally, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with Mr. Shores’ work also knows, he’s had exceptional luck fashioning stories around a quartet of often mismatched protagonists, as with his hit “Southern Baptist Sissies” in 2000 (followed by its successful film adaptation in 2013.) This time, he’s flipped the gender switch telling a tale centering on four women—“The Blaylock” clan by name, headed by mother “Ditty” (short for “Dorothy”) widely hailed as one of Gospel music’s most prolific and inspiring singer/song-writers. Then there’s her three daughters who, in their childhoods, were themselves renowned as the too-precious-for-words Gospel sensations, “The Little Superstars For Jesus”. “Rachel” is the eldest ‘Big Sis’, whose business these days is managing her website and related podcast, “A Good Christian Woman’s Place In A Marriage”, for which she records brief videos giving her followers advice on how to live up to everything the Good Book requires them to be. ‘Middle Sis’ “Abigail” meanwhile, is confined to a mental institution for ‘Anger Issues’ (the past results of which form a significant element of the action.) Rounding out their threesome is “Bethany’–the ‘Little Sis’, whom it seems hasn’t been doing so well herself. A lesbian (“Like Ellen” she explains,) and an atheist to boot–on top of everything, she’s a former stripper too! In defending her fall from the ‘purer faith’ she asserts: “It was easier not to believe in God than to stay mad at him all the time.” Nonetheless, so popular were they ‘back in the day”, the girls even won a Grammy Award when they were teenagers. Now well into adulthood, each is a riveting web of deep-seated personal problems, much of which they each blame on—you guessed it— their dear, devoted Mater.
As the first act proceeds, we learn that “Ditty” turned to Gospel Music for survival after her husband left her and their girls flat. In utilizing her flair for song writing along with her singing talent (–her father nicknamed her “Ditty” because even as a child she was always making up songs and composing bright lyrics–) she was able to rise above her lamentable circumstances to achieve considerable fame and fortune in the world of the “Pray for Pay” recording industry. Now mostly retired, “Ditty” is living with her eldest daughter, who is her primary caretaker–that is, when “Rachel’s” not also tending to her own comatose husband “Jude”, who’s kept at home in the upstairs bedroom, and is…well, accessible. When they were little, she even got her daughters involved, so when word goes out that “The Blaylock sisters are together again” for this Television special honoring their mother titled “Ditty Blaylock: 50 Years Of Servin’ Jesus”, in attempting to convince her eldest–if not of the importance, then on the novelty–their appearance means to her, she tries reminding her of the good times they had in those early, leaner, days (That they’ve been apart and not speaking for the better part of twenty-five years is incidental to their devout ‘Madre’s’ way of thinking.) “There were good memories…” Rachel concedes with a touch of foreboding; “Until there weren’t!” The real trouble arises once the prodigal siblings return to the fold, at which time we discover that these kin seriously are far less than kindred spirits–let alone even really kind to each other! (“I have failed to give my children happy lives so I have failed” Ditty grandiosely confesses at one point.) Always the astute businesswoman though, as an enticement to get the girls to agree to the reunion, ‘Mama B.’ has sent them all checks for $5000 dollars each—but she hasn’t signed them. For her to do that, they must agree to her terms. Little surprise then, that when “Bethany” eventually shows up knocking at the door, her most pressing concern is to have Mamma sign her outstretched check!
The second act finds the sisters getting down to business by attempting to rehearse around the piano for their big ‘come back’ a week before taping and when they harmonize it’s an immediate production highlight. However, that’s only a prelude to the bottled-up emotions and resentments each sister is patently seething with. It doesn’t help that their mother’s ego is off and running at full steam: “What did you expect?!” Rachel, stretched to the breaking point, swiftly confronts her; “Did you expect us to just shut our mouths and sing?!” It’s only when they’ve literally chased their indignant Mom out of the room that these intractable siblings can at last talk openly—revisiting past outrages (and the present day pain they’ve caused,) while finally attempting to clear the air. Dramatically, this segment is the most heart-wrenching and emotionally heart-stopping: “Accountability” Abby ruefully reminds them when ultimately given her say; “There was NEVER any of it here!” By the conclusion they do pull together long enough to dazzle with a song, titled “City Of Gold” that’s sincerely worth waiting for.
Starring a quartet of veteran-virtuoso Actresses, each contribute immensely to the overall goings-on, and each are exemplary in their own right. Sharon Garrison shines as “Ditty Blaylock”—the impetus for, and around whom, much of the action revolves. Garrison’s is a tour-de-force performance and characterization, as “Ditty” speaks her mind often cluelessly, with much of her dialogue–and plenty of her best laugh lines–simply tossed out there with no regard as to how it might be perceived. Case-in-point: when “Rachel” informs her that singer Sandi Patty thinks she’s a racist, Ditty glibly protests by firing back: “I am NOT a racist! …I’m from the South!” Others consist of subtly conveyed passive aggressive barbs couched as philosophical ‘observations’: “It’s a shame children have to grow up and can’t stay in their precious state,” she casually opines early on; “but this they do, and they will disappoint you!” Then again, what can you expect from a woman who passes the time languidly playing disingenuous sessions of “Russian Roulette” with a real gun (sans any bullets, of course.) Bobby Eakes furnishes another stalwart presence as “Rachel Blaylock”. Eakes’ principal take on “Rachel” has her likable enough—often despite herself; you see, “Rachel” is the one sister who stayed with the faith, so can it be accidental that she’s also the most embittered, hostile, and most unforgiving of the three as well?! In any event (as her mother informs her,) “Rachel” was the least of “Ditty’s” many disappointments. Rachel Sorsa also provides excellent support as “Bethany Blaylock” (“A good taste of Jesus, and I know she’d be back on the straight and narrow” ‘Ditty’ asserts–with a decided emphasis on the ‘straight’ in this instance!) Yet, the true revelation is Dale Dickey as “Abigail Blaylock” (or “Abby” for short.) Aching with pathos, she enlivens this—arguably the most wayward of the sisters—with an intense portrayal of a little lost soul (albiet one with some startling, underlying wisdom), that stands in fine contrast to the slightly more comedic turn she delivered in both the stage and movie adaptations of Shores’ “Southern Baptist Sissies”. This is a far weightier and multi-faceted role. In a word, she is brilliant here!
The set by Tom Buderwitz is an exercise in detail, giving us a homey living room, with a back porch (complete with rocking chair) situated upstage center. Indeed, count this as one occasion when “The Zephyr Theatre’s” intimate playing space actually benefits this kind of drawing-room soaper. Likewise, upon entry, be sure to check out the wall on which is a nifty mock-up of one of the ‘Blaylock girl’s’ framed ‘album covers’! Shon LeBlanc’s costumes also go a long way in helping to ‘flesh out’ the characters and their personality quirks, heavily favoring pinks, greens and lavenders (throughout their ‘performing career’, each girl had an individual color theme dontcha know!) The lighting design by Matthew Brian Denman is equally expressive, utilizing spurts of vibrant color to emphasize a heated point, underlying emotion, or a foray into memory, and is nicely aided by Drew Dalzell’s enterprising sound design which has the scene changes in the blackout covered by snippets of inspirational songs from some of music’s biggest stars (including, Dolly Parton.)
If you’re looking for an insanely memorable time at the theater: Hallelujah! Praise Jesus! You’ve found it! So preparest thou to be laughing lots (but it’s a safe bet you’ll be doing it with tears in your eyes!) After “Previewing” on Thursday, January 30th, “This Side Of Crazy” officially opened on Friday, January 31, where it will play through Sunday, March 8th, 2020 at “The Zephyr Theatre”, located at 7456 Melrose Avenue, in West Hollywood CA. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday performances at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM. Tickets may be obtained by logging onto: www.delshores.com to purchase online or to view the complete schedule.
Production Stills By Karianne Flaathen, Courtesy of David Elzer At Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And “Beard/Collins/Shores Productions”; Special Thanks To Del Shores, Emerson Collins, Louise H. Beard, David Elzer And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Zephyr Theatre’s” 2020 Los Angeles Premiere Of “This Side Of Crazy” For Making This Story Possible.