Bad Licks for Dumb Hicks

We all know about small Texas towns. We know about them funny (Greater Tuna, the Fertle family, etc.); we know about them straight (Last Picture Show, Hud, etc.). Even if we didn't live in Texas, we'd know about them. In part, the world knows about small Texas towns because of Larry L. King's Broadway and movie hit Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, written with Peter Masterson. And now we hear about them once again, thanks to the brand-new Houston Repertory Theatre, which chose King's The Night Hank Williams Died as its premiere effort -- no big surprise, since Houston Rep founder William Hardy starred in the touring production of Best Little Whorehouse, and Masterson is integrally involved in the Rep's start-up. But although the opening production was generally up to the professional Equity standards Hardy says he's aiming for, he was misguided in his choice of scripts.

Hank Williams is quite enjoyable when it's aw-shucks-ing its one-liners. "I still say if you gave yer beer away and charged a dollar to pee, you'd make more money," a bar customer advises the bar's owner. Or, "You've got a chip on your shoulder that looks like it came from a buffalo." Or, playing dominoes, "You're trying to trick me!" Reply: "Nah." Pause. "It ain't necessary." King would have been fine if he had simply stuck to his aimless wisecracks and bawdy witticisms, but when it gets down to serious plot-ifying, Hank Williams is as about as engaging as a traffic light on a deserted west Texas Main Street on a hot summer night.

Hank Williams is set in the imaginary town of Stanley -- a town so without prospect that the chamber of commerce has closed down -- in that classic time of small Texas town decline, the '50s. The play is built around a beer joint, the Sundowner Recreation Club, and to some extent around the beer joint's owner, Gus, a middle-aged fellow resigned to handing his roughneck clientele cold Pearls and grizzled cautions not to end up like he did. Foremost among the bar's regulars is Thurmond, a one-time high school football star who was never able to take the next step to success, in part because next steps are pretty limited around Stanley. When he's not pumping gas, Thurmond's pestering Gus for beer on credit and dreaming about peddling his country songs in Nashville. When Gus takes the wannabe Hank Williams to task for not making more of his life, Thurmond defends himself with sweet hick outrage: "There's lots of sonfabitches in here sorrier than me!"

Thurmond's high school sweetheart, Nellie Bess, did take the next step; she up and married a chiropractor in Cisco. But now she's home to visit, bored with the tedium of an unimaginative and inattentive husband. Nellie and Thurmond start cutting capers, setting the town gossiping and themselves dreaming about a way out of their separate ruts. Then, after slow-boiling his down-home characters for three-quarters of the play, it's as if playwright King suddenly thought he needed some action and a storyline. So he came up with some and crammed it into about five minutes. It doesn't make much sense, either emotionally or theatrically, and I exited the theater shaking my head and wondering, "What was that all about?"

As directed by Hardy, the production is generally smooth and even-handed. The jokes are well-paced, dropped with precise, offhand care, like dry flies flipped into a promising stream. However, the central figure, Thurmond -- Mr. Hank Williams' aspirant -- is too much from the Gomer Pyle school of country fools. Thurmond may be a deluded dreamer, but, given we've all got a bit of the dingy clodhead in us, the audience should still be able to identify with him. Lynn Miller Jr. doesn't allow for that; he plays Thurmond all chin jabs and exaggerated stances. When more emphasis is needed, he makes extra big bug eyes and juts his chin out again for good measure. By the time the plot finally lands the equivalent of a piano on our hero, just like the play's title promises, we really don't much care whether he goes splat or not.

Susan Shofner plays Nellie Bess with a believable and likable intelligence -- believable, that is, except when she starts to rekindle her sweetness on Thurmond. Hardy handily dispatches the part of gruff but kindly geezer Gus, although his performance does have a bit of an air of "I could do this with one hand tied behind my back."

Joanna Baylefs has the unfortunate role of Nellie Bess' born-again mother, Vida, a character so pious that she doesn't allow air conditioning because it's not in the Bible. Here the small-town spoofing falls especially flat; the moment Vida enters a room, all humor flies out the window. Thomas Baird adds a commendable turn as the bullying sheriff. He could easily have taken this bad-guy role over the top, but instead he conveys an easy-going and credible assholeness.

But the show's definite high spot is David Parker as Moon, Gus' domino-playing cohort, who serves absolutely no role in furthering the plot. With his elastic comic face, he is straight out of a John Henry Faulk skit -- "I took a pee that was better'n young love," he says with a shit-eating grin -- conveying everything I'd always wanted of homespun goofiness with a twist of homely twinkle thrown in for good measure. Parker knows how to play broad comedy without having it sink into simplistic parody.

Perhaps because of loyalties, the Houston Rep has chosen to premiere with a play that only shows them to half-advantage. I can only hope that the promise I saw latent in their Hank Williams show is delivered in full with future productions.

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Ann Walton Sieber