The only thing bigger than Hannah's Texas-sized hair is her sweet, tender heart, which has been broken when we first meet her in Robert Edward Williams's Heart of a Woman at Stages Repertory Theatre. Her man, Duane (that's "Dew-wane" in West Texas talk), has died. And her cozy little double-wide trailer-park world has become a vast and lonely place without him. In an effort to put things right, the hardworking nail technician sets out to find the man who now owns Duane's organ-donated heart. Along the way, she ends up learning a lot about the cosmic mysteries of love and loss.
Duane's good heart turns up in El Reno, Texas, and it's beating just as strong as ever in the body of a rich car salesman who's known all over the county for his "Auto Show and Car Circus." None of that matters to Hannah (Anne Quackenbush), who just wants five minutes of his time so that she can press her ear to his urban cowboy chest and hear the thump-thump-thumping of Duane's sweet heart. Once she hears that heart, she's sure she can put her grief behind her once and for all, and then get on with her life.
Trouble is, Jerry (Drake Simpson) won't cooperate. It's not that he's stingy with his new heart, or even all that mad about the fact that Hannah's broken the "Transplant Privacy Act" to hunt him down, but Jerry's got a jealous wife (Deborah Hope). If she catches him in the skanky Shooting Star Motel, where Hannah's staying, Jerry's gun-toting wife is bound to think he's stepping out.
Heart of a Woman Through Sunday, August 12, at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For more information, call 713-527-0123. $32-$42.
Pump Boys and Dinettes Through Saturday, July 28, at Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park. Free.
But Hannah won't leave Jerry alone, and in a final act of desperation, the man shows up in Hannah's room, only to beg her to get out of town. All he wants to see out of her, he explains, is "asses and elbows."
At this point, these seemingly worn-out types spark to life, and a moving and surprisingly fresh story slowly rises out of the ashes of the seemingly burned-out terrain. Of course, the walloping performances that director Chris Jimmerson pulls from his talented cast do much to fuel the fire.
Quackenbush's fragile and funny Hannah hugs her own thin body, filled with the sweet and constantly aching pain of grief. Her reluctant, crooked smile slides into tears when she looks at the country night sky filled with gloriously bright stars and remembers how much Duane loved her. In these moments Quackenbush summons forth an almost elegiac and hushed reverence for the great power of love to make a place for the lost and lonely in the universe. Simpson, who plays both the earthbound Jerry and the heavenly Duane, is a country girl's dream. Jerry's face lights up into a goofy, full-lipped grin when he sees for the first time all the sweetness in Hannah. Filled with redneck charm, he innocently offers to put Hannah up in a better motel room, one that "comes complete with a water bed and a full box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts." Duane is more of a doofus, though he lingers at the edges of Hannah's dreams, calling her to him in heaven. And when Jerry and Duane fight for control of Jerry's body/ Duane's heart, the audience screams with laughter as Simpson jerks himself around while dueling it out, only to get tangled up in his own clothes.
Deborah Hope supports these scenes, handling the smaller roles with raunchy humor. Her best is the tarty Mary Alice, who squeals with delight when Jerry sends Hannah a pair of glittery Payless pumps.
Out of the simple elegance of these tenderhearted characters, Williams builds an odd and poignant homage to the power of love: It binds our frail lives together, and if it's true, it lasts forever.
These balmy July nights are perfect for an evening at Miller Outdoor Theatre. And the family-friendly country-western musical revue Pump Boys and Dinettes would seem to be a perfect fit for the noisy, kid-filled venue. But the Theatre Under the Stars production, designed by Troupe America, is little more than a shameless and flashy collection of brightly colored ads for Coke and Shell Oil (a TUTS corporate sponsor), with performers thrown in for good measure. Against the backdrop of lit-up signs, the down-home, cornball show doesn't deliver any more fizz than a can of flat soda.
Before the music starts, the actors mill through the audience asking things like "What's an 'eyeconologist'?" Answer: "A person who works on your eyes!" At one point they need volunteers for a preshow manicure on stage. The opening-night winner was a suburban-looking fellow who ended up with a red lacquered fingernail. These are the jokes, folks.
It's actually possible to imagine this dumbed-down silliness working in a circusy sort of way. After all, the whole preshow business at the Miller feels like a carnival, with the line of vendors selling popcorn and cola, and advertiser tents handing out cheap trinkets.
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But on opening night, the performers seemed bored with the whole thing. Maybe they were conserving their energy. Most sing, dance and perform as the onstage band. In fact, the talent gathered for this production is enormously impressive. And the collection of easy, country-sounding tunes that fill up the score are full of potential fun, riffing off everything from rockabilly to the blues.
In fact, individual songs such as "Serve Yourself" spark with promise. Sung by energetic keyboardist Jonathan Brown, the number is one of the best in the show. And Eric Scott Anthony's "Mona" rocks the audience into ecstatic waves of applause. But as a whole, the show lacks cohesion and energy. And most of this talent goes to waste under Curt Wollan's direction and Wendy Short-Hayes's clumsy choreography.
Especially disappointing is the last-minute feel of David Lutken's numbers. The tall, dark-haired, homespun, handsome singer plays the guitar, banjo and fill-in drums. He also has one of the smoothest honey-sweet voices to spread across any Houston theater in quite a while, and an enormously likable stage presence. But his songs lack heart.
Of course the show is 100 percent free. And the summer nights haven't been this temperate in years. There's free stuff for the kids on the way in. And if you're lucky, almost everybody will be asleep before the whole thing is over.