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A Joy Forever 

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A JOY FOREVER

Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Some shows produce the opposite result from the one intended. Frank Manley's A Joy Forever is one instance: meant to celebrate resilience and grit, it is instead a talky case history of loonies in the boonies. In this supposedly heartening 90-minute portrait of four timid backwater Georgia women, we're meant to root for the quartet of peckerwood loners intent on defending their memories against an uncaring future.

But the closer we get to Mattie Chadwick and the Grizzles, the more we realize they need help, not the gravel road they seek to preserve.

Mattie, who emerges as a frightened, pathetic rabbit, not the dotty lady we're supposed to love, leads the fight to save the endangered road, which connects her and the Grizzles with the world. Their enemy is a venal county commissioner who wants to close the road to protect the privacy of several proposed river estates.

Mattie's been morbidly out to lunch ever since her parents were killed in an auto accident and she saw shrouds on the furniture. Among other fears, she's convinced someone will soon practice "aggravated sodomy" on her and throw her mutilated body in a Dumpster. Benny Whitmaker, the county commissioner, is the prime candidate. She's also certain you can get TB and gonorrhea from the spit (she calls it "amber") the good ole boys ejaculate on the courthouse steps. She's even convinced it can penetrate the thickest boots. But on a happier note, Mattie believes--ad nauseam--in the "soft spot where you're a joy forever"; she means the heart, but in her case I'd look a lot higher up.

Pistol-packing Mommie Grizzle, certain her flesh is melting in her old age and loathing her multiplying illnesses, refuses to be consoled by the thought that in death she'll join her loved and feared husband. He was a former chicken farmer who found God after he mutilated a "chicken catcher" he caught destroying his fowls. Known as a great preacher because he was a terrible human being (and thus understood sin), the pulpit pounder was famous for supposedly baptizing people in blood and casting out demons in a sort of primal-puke therapy.

The two Grizzle daughters have no stronger hold on reality than their mother or Mattie. The younger, a slinky, sulky, man-eating teenager named Crystal, is certain she's going to be a famous dancer in New York. Alfie, a Saturday Night Live-style Church Lady without the glamour, is as sexually repressed as any daughter of Bernarda Alba, Garcia Lorca's quintessential dominating mother. It turns out daddy was a little bit too loving. (There's a third daughter, Forsythia, whom we never see; it's just as well.)

Near the end of the play, we realize just how far gone Alfie is. In the midst of Mattie's telling how she confronted Whitmaker (he threatened her life and dared her to circulate a recall petition), Alfie emerges covered in blood and babbles that she has just conducted her own baptism--self-mutilation is her way of exorcising her memories of incest.

Up until this point Mommie has been reluctant to sign the petition, for fear that the world will remember their existence and burn them out in the dead of night to gain their land. But after Alfie triumphantly mutilates herself, Mommie galvanizes the girls into fighting for their right to a road, the link to life that nourishes and, gasp, empowers them.

Sorry if I don't delight in the crackers' comeback. Desperately in need of Fundamentalists Anonymous, these women make the family in Tobacco Road look like the Huxtables. Mattie and the Grizzles are, alas, just the latest examples of Beth Henley-style salt-of-the-earth southern crazies; you're supposed to take them to your heart because they're a lot more dangerous to themselves than they are to regular folks. I can't manage that: twisted by a religion ready for a straitjacket, these "eccentric" people went off the deep end long ago. It'll be eons before this clan reaches the evolutionary level of Mama's Family.

Maybe Manley was trying for the kind of unsettling, tenacious misfit Christine Lahti played in the film Housekeeping. What he forgets--as he did in his earlier Victory Gardens offering, the imperfectly dramatized Prior Engagements--is how onstage symbols can overwhelm their intended meaning; a woman dripping in her own blood is no metaphor, she's a cry for help--one nobody in A Joy Forever seems to hear. Preserving a stupid gravel road as an answer to that cry is a sick joke.

In this Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens Studio Theater, Sandy Shinner certainly makes the pathology persuasive. As in Eleemosynary and The Stick Wife, Shinner directs women with unforced wisdom and hard-won compassion. Lee Guthrie as Mattie is too young for the role, but she does give Mattie a deadpan earnestness that nicely distracts from the idiot beneath. As Mommie Grizzle, Rebecca Borter has the right curmudgeonliness--though why she keeps kicking her damn pistol is beyond me.

Shira Piven is fidgety-bored as Crystal, who's too young to be scared. Toni Potts has the thankless role of messed-up Alfie, whose sudden rehabilitation is the play's most shoddy piece of wishful thinking. Finally, despite enormous temptation, Greg Kerouac plays three different wicked men without ever once twisting his moustache.

The strange set, a room surrounded by eight very different doors and fenced in by miniature folk-art windmills, is by Linda Lane; the down-home threads by Roger Stricker; and the rather unimaginative lighting, which conveniently dims to signal a flashback, is by Mike Ledger.

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