Wanda, Daisy And The Great Rapture Suffers From an Overstuffed Plot

Avery Padilla and Stevie Michelle Aycock in Wanda, Daisy And The Great Rapture.
Avery Padilla and Stevie Michelle Aycock in Wanda, Daisy And The Great Rapture. Photo by Cressandra Thibodeaux

In the program for Alexis Schaetzle’s new play, Wanda, Daisy and the Great Rapture, Director David Rainey explains that it was the universality of the story that drew him to the work. We are all adrift in life, he says, just trying to figure out where our place is.

And yes, on one level, Wanda, Daisy and the Great Rapture can be described as a play about characters looking for direction. Motherless stepsisters, Wanda and Daisy, feel stifled by their small town, trailer park life. Wanda, the good girl, spends her days caring for her ailing stepfather, missing her recently deceased mother and hoping that becoming a youth pastor in her Rapture-obsessed church will give her purpose. Daisy, the bad girl, recently home from a forced stint in religious boot camp due to “an accident” she caused, smokes and drinks and thinks that winning first prize in the Miss Tobacco beauty pageant is her ticket out.

This plot alone might have allowed Wanda, Daisy and the Great Rapture to be an interesting (if somewhat stereotypical) examination of our desire to have our lives be about something. To mean something bigger. However, in her effort to make her play ‘universal’, Schaetzle has made the mistake of trying to throw too many ideas and too much plot into her two-act show.

Bud, the girls’ father/stepfather is not just ailing, he has Alzheimer’s. The kind that hits you young. And not only is he forgetting the present and the past, he is hallucinating fondly about his dead wife, Wanda’s mother, Theresa Lee. And how did Theresa Lee die? Well, it was suicide of course. A shotgun to the head due to depression, just like so many in the family before her. And wait for it….all of them utilizing the exact same gun. A gun that gets passed down for that purpose.

Oy! Someone ring up The Young and The Restless writing pool and see if they need an extra hand.

To make matters worse, Schaetzle throws a pseudo-magical realism element into the plot. Dead Theresa Lee haunts every character in the show. Well, not haunt really, they all seem fine with their visions of her. Bud sees her in his mania. She comes to Daisy and Wanda as a kind of inner voice writ real. Sometimes she is a ghost they talk to. Sometimes she (with the stage cue of a not so subtle bell) takes them back in time to relive a flashback moment. No one is perturbed by this. No one finds it odd. Only Bud, in his mentally diminishing state, even talks about it with the other characters.

Sure, she helps us learn what Daisy’s accident was about, and how she and Bud met and what kind of relationship she had with Wanda. But half the time we’re so confused as to whether her scenes are meant to be real-time hauntings or flashbacks or something in between that we care little about the information and more about just what the hell is going on.

But if the structure is confusing, the dialogue is not. In fact, it’s so often painfully spelled out in spoken metaphor after metaphor that we’re dying for a scene without the word “like” in it. “I miss her so much I need her like air”. “All the hair on my arms stood up like grass.” “I hold that memory in my hand like glass”. Honestly, you could play a drinking game with this show and get good and drunk.

And yet. Thank goodness there is an, and yet. Even if it’s a small piece of the whole.

“I have a bug in my bones”, Theresa Lee tells us in one of her monologues (lit in garish spotlight with all the stylishness of a firing squad). It’s her way of describing her mental illness and what, if anything, might feed or kill the bug or give it wings to fly even more urgently. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. Elegant in its simplicity. Straightforward in its meaning. Evocative as hell. We all lean forward and listen to this poor woman matter-of-factly tell us why she was unstoppably headed for suicide.

Similarly, Bud, in one of his more cogent moments, describes why he loves living where he does. It’s dusk and the cicadas are our for their nightly songs. “I will never leave the South”, he says. “Here the smallest things have the biggest voices.”

We smile and think wow…and then shake our heads that the rest of the show didn’t manage to achieve anything close to this beauty.

The cast proves to be mixed bag when tackling the problematic script. Faring the best are Tom Stell as Bud and Kathleen Teodoro as Theresa Lee. Too often, Director Rainey, has Stell shuffling about, grimacing or head squeezing in Alzheimer’s angst, but Stell manages to rise above both the repetitive direction and crammed script to deliver the most modulated and emotional moments. Teodora likewise makes effortless work of the clunky plot and gives us a believable, troubled character.

Less successful are Stevie Michelle Aycock and Avery Padilla as Wanda and Daisy. Padilla certainly has the bad girl swagger down pat and knocks out a terrifically emotional final monologue, but her pacing is often either too quick or several beats too slow for much of the show, resulting in a disconnection with her scene mates. The cigarettes/joints she smokes constantly don’t help either. In her hands, these props seem like foreign objects rather than a mainstay of her character. Aycock simply feels like she’s reciting lines rather than participating in the collaborative effort of listening and responding.

Wanda, Daisy And The Great Rapture, was originally presented in Houston as part of The Landing Theater company’s 2017 New American Voices Play Reading Series. One of the few places that brand new work gets aired in this city. And goodness knows we need new work to be shown in Houston. There simply isn’t enough of it. But one thing most new work needs is workshopping, a chance to get feedback and tweak, which it’s obvious this play hasn’t received.

There is potentially something in there. Maybe something really special. Maybe not. But there is no maybe in our gratitude that Landing (along with their co-presenting company, Obsidian Theatre) has taken the risk and decided that new work is what they will champion this round.

By now you all know my broken record refrain, play it safe and I’m yawning. Risk and potentially fail and you have my respect.

Wanda, Daisy And The Great Rapture continues through June 9 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For information, visit $18 - $28.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman