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White trash talkin' 

Plus, Cherry on top

America, helped by the genius of our most gifted African detainees, can take credit for soaking the starch out of European art forms and infusing them with the savvy casualness of jazz, the lusty rowdiness of rock, and the joyous enthusiasm of gospel. We can also point to the pioneering wildness, the capitalist greed, and the blustering ignorance of our heritage when explaining such mutilations inflicted upon civilized culture as Las Vegas, black velvet paintings, and the Big Mac.

Betsy Kelso forswears all that is funky or soulful in our national psyche, trafficking strictly -- and swiftly -- in trash throughout The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Coupled with a David Nehls score that is equal parts rockabilly and treacly Nashville saccharine, the seediness of Kelso's trash chimes piquantly with a Southern twang.

Actor's Theatre has frequently dealt with the aberrations of American life before, but the closest they've come to a carefree white-trash wallow like this was their Johnny Guitar Western spoof late in 2005. Here, the mastermind is director Dennis Delamar, who works wonders with a cast that must have given music director Marty Gregory fits.

Thanks to set designer Chip Decker, flamingoes lurk everywhere in this cheesiest of Floridas. The déclassé ladies of Armadillo Acres splash on Wesson Oil to cultivate their suntans, and a pair of tickets to Ice Capades are almost enough to lure an agoraphobic wife out of a 20-year seclusion. "Like a dress from Wal-Mart, my life is falling apart," the hermitic Jeannie wails. Having her baby boy kidnapped -- and a bad perm -- are the ancient roots of her emotional tailspin.

Jeannie's long-suffering husband Norbert has finally strayed, lusting after runaway stripper Pippi, who has just moved in to a nearby trailer. A unique bond cements their intimacy. "Do you have any idea what it's like," Pippi pouts, "to make your living by collecting dollar bill after dollar bill after dollar bill?"

"Yes," Norbert sighs. "I'm a toll collector."

Neither Phil Taylor as Norbert nor Heather Hamby as Pippi can really sing a lick, but Taylor can evoke a credible redneck angst and Hamby sports a stallion-like allure. Behind those mousy glasses, it's Lisa Smith as the agoraphobic Jeannie who is the true belter in the bunch.

Vocal excellence is similarly scarce among the sunbathing trio, with Liz Hyde supplying surprising scorch to Betty, our widow proprietor. Johanna Lloyd as Pickles and Carmen Schultz as Linoleum are adequate singing harmony, but it's their comedy that closes the deal -- Lloyd indomitably dopey and Schultz consistently catty.

Wild card in this warped deck is Ryan Stamey as Pippi's ex-boyfriend, Duke, who sniffs clusters of Sharpies to keep his menacing edge. His rampaging pursuit, "Road Kill," is arguably the showstopper of the night -- surely the gamiest song in the trashy cavalcade.

THE MOST CHILLING MOMENT in Cherry Jones's triumphant turn as Sister Aloysius in Doubt came at the peak of her vicious showdown with Father Flynn, accused of sexual predation on the slimmest of evidence. At no time during the opening night performance of John Patrick Shanley's provocative "parable" was Jones more appalling -- exactly the gargoyle that director Doug Hughes had wanted her to be.

Yet at that moment, when Aloysius had most blatantly deprived Flynn of the reasonable doubt that is the cornerstone of American justice, an isolated cheer broke out in the orchestra section of Belk Theater. So much for Jones' worries (reported in our "Cherry's Jubilee" interview, available online) that she has made Aloysius too tough and irascible.

In truth, Jones was more fearsome than when I'd seen her in the original Manhattan Theatre Club production in December 2004 -- her inquisitorial dimension growing to fill an auditorium seven times the size of MTC. But something else factors in when an above-the-title Tony Award legend takes a show on a national tour.

Some folks who see Jones expect her role to follow the simplistic Hollywood paradigm: the big-name star is the hero. While the ambiguous balance of Doubt would be upset for starstruck audience members, I suspect they were not an overwhelming majority last Tuesday evening. I myself was awed anew by Jones, but not in a way that would cause me to mistake Shanley's intent.

But Jones wasn't the whole show. Chris McGarry was a more athletic Flynn than Brian F. O'Byrne had been -- with a thicker New York accent. McGarry won me over readily enough but wasn't as effective in the climactic showdown, though he admirably matched Jones decibel for hortatory decibel.

Lisa Joyce was pitch-perfect as Sister James, the rookie teacher at the Bronx Catholic School who is uncomfortable adapting to Aloysius' cold, suspicious outlook. As the mother of the black student who may have been exploited by Flynn, Caroline Stefanie Clay was more powerful than Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox in confronting Aloysius -- maybe a little too strong for 1964, but I preferred her.

Clay and McGarry were understudies in the Broadway production. So what we saw when Shanley's Pulitzer Prize drama came to Charlotte was the real deal in every respect.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW about Karen, one of the two heroines in Carter W. Lewis's comedy adventure, Women Who Steal, is that she's devoutly, obsessively cerebral and on the verge of her 40th birthday. She has only recently bedded Peggy's husband as the action begins -- but for many years before that, she has cut a humiliating swathe through Peggy's marriage. Poor Peg's closet is filled with replicas of Karen's wardrobe, gifts from that scalawag husband.

If Karen is stylish, smart, and alluring in her moaning, despairing way, Peggy is humdrum, centered, and -- she'll admit this -- plain. But not docile: Peg knows where to get her hands on a rifle, and there's hell to pay when she does.

These women are nicely, woozily out of control in this slick 88-minute production from BareBones Theatre Group. Julie Janorschke is in top form as the despairing, neurotic, conceited Karen and Dave Blamy, playing all the male roles, greatly enlarges the fine impression he made recently as the fireman in Omnium Gatherum.

Anne Lambert has the most treacherous terrain to navigate as Peggy, about seven different people all by herself. By now, she may be bridging these dizzying changes on auto-pilot, but last Saturday at Duke Power Theatre there were telltale seams in her performance as she mentally checked her coordinates.

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