The Oldest Living Graduate | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Oldest Living Graduate 

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Raven Theatre Company

Better mean than dead. That's the message of The Oldest Living Graduate, the final installment in the late Preston Jones's "Texas Trilogy," where the mean old coot is 75-year-old Colonel J.C. Kinkaid. Because this colorful curmudgeon has managed to survive World War I and much more, he's now--in 1962--the sole survivor of the Mirabeau B. Lamar Military Academy's inaugural class of 1905.

The blunt and feisty colonel, dumbfounded to discover he's a relic of the past, resists becoming the last of anything. (He resists just as hard in The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, the best-known play of the trilogy; occurring on the same day as Graduate, it depicts, among other things, a stroke the colonel has in another part of Jones's imaginary west Texas town, Bradleyville.) Encrusted with a shell-shocked senility, fidgeting in his wheelchair, J.C. Kinkaid regularly chews out everyone around him. He also regularly retreats into the past, rampaging down memory lane and sputtering non sequiturs, erupting in tirades against Herbert Hoover and the kaiser and bragging about how he saved his men by making them regularly check their feet.

But you can't keep the present forever at bay. Kinkaid's wealthy, ambitious son Floyd, frustrated at his inability to escape his father's shadow, wants to turn the colonel's last undeeded tract of land into a "rich and exclusive" resort. But the never-say-die colonel prizes the land for memories it triggers of a woman he loved. That's the first impasse.

The second comes as Floyd asks the colonel to let himself be trotted out as the oldest living graduate at a weekend of festivities--during which Floyd will encourage rich academy grads to invest in his resort. Here, too, the colonel gets his dander up--in front of a slick academy commandant the colonel thinks doesn't know a mule's fart about war. While surveying a list of dead classmates, the colonel realizes he can't conjure up their faces anymore and starts to panic. Moaning "Damn death!" Kinkaid frantically pours out jumbled, twisted, and contradictory memories of his days with Pershing's cavalry, and Floyd's big commemoration goes nowhere. It makes for one hell of a scene.

Of course the conflict in Jones's play is familiar stuff--a son's declaration of independence runs smack into a stubborn father's fear of the future. We know they're too much alike not to work things out eventually, once the colonel realizes the folly of trying to escape death by living in the past and Floyd learns how to ask instead of grab. In any case, in Graduate it's the fireworks that count, not the inevitable reconciliation.

Of the plays in Jones's trilogy (LuAnn Hampton Laverty Oberlander is the third), Graduate is easily the most conventional and static, its conflicts set up early and obviously, with too few surprises along the way. But as always the details of Jones's characters are perfect, the dialogue ranges nicely from the pungent--"If bullshit was music, you'd be a goddamn brass band"--to the elegiac, and he clearly knows his Texans as a rancher does his herd.

So does director Michael Menendian, who adds this Graduate staging to his well-done 1982 LuAnn and 1986 Last Meeting. A lovingly assembled Dixie delight, this Raven Theatre Company production has a major treasure in Charles Thomas's wonderful, irascible old colonel; Thomas carries the play like an aged Atlas. A Gabby Hayes spitfire with a ready, rubber face, Thomas can not only spew forth insults like artillery fire but glow convincingly when sudden memories turn this rascal colonel weirdly angelic. In the beautiful final scene, Thomas pours out his last, best lines with all the panic of a long-postponed reckoning; even for a crusty old soldier, it seems death can come as a mean surprise.

Everything else is just support. Ray Toler suggests Floyd's good ol' boy venality early and well, but not his vulnerability; Floyd's plea for sympathy comes too late, partly the fault of the script's attempt at the eleventh hour to soften his crassness. As his bored and boozing wife, Kathlyn Miles employs a sly Alice Kramden sarcasm (which is totally wasted on Floyd). Chuck Spencer as Floyd's nerdy, nasty business partner and Lisa Keefe as his dizzy-belle wife offer killer caricatures of cultivated crackers.

Playing a farmhand who knows the colonel better than his own son does, Steven Fedoruk indulges in too much hangdog, Gomer Pyle self-effacement. More successful are James Harvey and Herb Turns as military stereotypes. When the colonel lashes them mercilessly with his terrible, swift tongue, they take their punishment like good soldiers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.


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