Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The mum in This Side of Crazy is the narcissistic, egotistical, relentless, and (falsely) pious Ditty Blaylock (Christine Macomber), a composer of treacly Christian music who stage-mothered her three daughters into a childhood career as a trio, traveling the country giving concerts at churches and local theaters. She's Mama Rose with a Southern accent and a silver cross around her neck. Fittingly, one of her girls, Bethany (Amy Meyers), grew up to be a stripper, while middle sibling Abigail (Alison Whismore) has spent her adult life in an asylum for anger issues when eldest sister Rachel (Cheryl Smith) stole something from her and Abigail "snapped."
With Abigail committed, and Bethany cut off from the family, it's left to Rachel to assume the duty of caretaker for her mothera challenge even for the child who has not only remained in the church, but has a weekly internet vlog for "Good Christian Women." But when Ditty gets word that Gospel Music Television wants to honor her with a lifetime achievement award where many of country and gospel music's biggest stars (Amy Grant! Vince Gill! Larry Gatlin! Sandi Patty!!!) will sing her greatest hits, she decides The Blaylock Sisters should get back together as a surprise finale for the big show. And since Mama Ditty is used to getting what she wants, she's not going to let the fact that Rachel won't speak to Abigail, or that Abigail is still committed (and medicated), or that Bethany is an atheist pole dancer in a strip club, stop her.
As Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and the Blaylock family is unhappy in a completely hysterical, train-wreck-you-can't-look-away-from sort of way (as in the opening scene when Rachel is loudly satisfying her "carnal desires" with her husband, who is in a 24-year long coma in the upstairs bedroom, or when Bethany prepares a chili dinner with ingredients assembled entirely from the dollar store. Including the meat.)
Most of the humor is fired out the mouth of Mama Ditty like missiles with independent warheads coated in honey, for she prefaces nearly every barb ("You are the least of my disappointments") with "darling" or "sweetness," as though to disguise her cruelties under a veneer of parental affection. "I'm sorry," she'll say, "I should have just thought that." Still, she manages to get her "little superstars for Jesus" all under the same roof, leading to confrontations and resolutions through dialogue that manages to be both highly theatrical and highly natural, and the story just rockets itself along, with revelations enough to surprise us for the entire two hour and 45 minute running time.
Del Shoresbest known for the movies Sordid Lives and Southern Baptist Sissies (both of which started out as stage plays)also directs this story, and his love for these flawed but somehow still lovable characters comes shining through in every moment. It's his skillcombined with top-notch performances from the castthat keeps This Side of Crazy from feeling as long as it is.
Christine Macomber must feel like Christmas came early for her in the role of Ditty Blaylock. Like the child who prolongs their Xmas morning pleasure by slowly removing the wrapping from every gift, Macomber savors each line, every raised eyebrow, or pursed lips, floating through each scene with a fluttery gracenot unlike the diaphanous, gossamer collection of muumuus and floral jumpsuits created for her by costume designer Wes Crain (whose work in last season's The View Upstairs was one of the best things about that show.)
Macomber owns this show, but seems happy to sublet the spotlight on occasion to her three co-stars. Cheryl Smith is perfect as Rachel, a woman holding the family (such as it is) together with a combination of faith, righteous indignation, and an almost uncanny immunity to her mother's Machiavellian manipulations. Amy Meyers brings a breezy nonchalance to her role, as she is the only Blaylock who seems to have truly disconnected from her past. As Abigail, the angry sister whose decades-old crime led to the family's splintering, Alison Whismore expertly expresses both woundedness and a powerful resolve.
Yes, Ditty Blaylock is responsible for fucking up her children, but as Rachel says about family, "They push your buttonsbecause they installed them." But the button you should push is the one to buy tickets for this massively entertaining world premiere.
This Side of Crazy runs through October 20, 2019, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$55 and can be purchased at NCTCSF.org or by calling 415-861-8972.