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Texarkana 

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TEXARKANA

Center Theater

It's a powerful formula, but nowadays it often comes too easily: you hide some secret in your character's past, suggest the misery he endures in blocking it out for years, then after prolonging the pressure to the breaking point, get him to confess it or to discover it wasn't his fault--and presto! purgation for all concerned, sometimes even the audience.

Ibsen practically patented--well before Freud--this "truth shall set you free" trick: he'd plant what he called a "life lie" in a character's past, then set up a circuitous route by which it would catch up to his tortured present. George and Martha's imaginary kid in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? serves the same function: once this fiction is exploded, the couple can finally begin to stop playing games.

In Texarkana, Chicago playwright Elizabeth Shepherd plays the repression-confession strategy for all it's worth--and in only 75 minutes manages to prove it is worth the trouble.

Shepherd gives us two twins who grew up in Paris, Texas, then grew apart. Alice, a romance novelist, has moved to New York, mainly to get away from her dusty, dying hometown, a dead-end dump that seems to have shrunk more every time she returns to it. Jimmy has stayed behind, bored with his daily routine and bitter with survivor guilt; recently wounded in Vietnam (it's 1974), he has had to take care of his even more crippled father after the car accident that horribly injured his father and killed his mother. The twin burden hasn't made Jimmy Mr. Congeniality, and it's produced a secret he refuses to share.

In a symbolic, gesture, Alice sorts through the attic of what she calls their "haunted house," attempting to rekindle Jimmy's desire to live, if only in the past. She dances to Elvis records they used to love (no avail) and tweaks him about the book he's written about their past (he just pulls into his shell).

The stasis shifts when Alice meets Jesse, the traveling Texarkana disciple of an itinerant preacher named Bob. Desperate for converts to Bob's failing ministry, Jesse persuades Alice to come to a service; there Alice recognizes a power in the preacher he always thought he had even if frightened Jesse didn't see it. The task now is to see whether Bob can help a cynical Jimmy escape his past--as Bob proclaims, "Beginnings and endings don't exist"--and Jimmy can help Bob believe in his calling.

Of course this sets up the much-needed purgation. When Shepherd's "balm in Gilead" does come, with a predictability that Metra would envy, it still works, sort of, because Dan LaMorte's slow and steady staging plays it as if nobody knew this was a formula. As far as LaMorte is concerned--and this is what works for him--Shepherd invented the device from scratch, gave Center Theater the first patent, and they decided to set the perfect precedent.

If the stratagem weren't so familiar, the acting would be a fresh miracle. As is, it's still abundantly persuasive. A resilient, vixenish Alice, Yvonne Suhor convinces us her fiction writer can shape life almost as easily as pulp.

Occasionally resembling the early Laurie Metcalf, Suhor displays a direct, no-nonsense acting that, if pushed further, might turn glib; here it's just the right mix of salt and sugar. With natural, loose-limbed ease, Ramsey Midwood effortlessly conveys Jimmy's buried vulnerability and builds the Vietnam vet's massive defensiveness on that foundation. Suhor and Midwood play well off each other, as twins should.

Though no charismatic preacher, Robert Maffia gives Bob a stiff--sometimes too stiff--integrity that helps undercut the Elmer Gantry stereotype. It takes a while to realize that, despite Bob's TV evangelist ambitions, this Bible thumper could be on the level. As Diane Tuscher plays Jesse, it's ambiguous whether she still hopes Bob will prove his powers or she's just bone tired of the gospel grind and wants a quick escape. But then everyone here wants some change desperately; and Shepherd neatly engineers it so they get it in one big, mutually beneficial epiphany not unlike the ending of Moonstruck.

An old trick, but it still works.

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